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Segment 1: Panopticon society; A New Battlefield; Black Chamber
Glenn began the program demonstrating the massive size and scope of the current levels of domestic surveillance in the United States. The NSA released a memo in 2013 claiming it ‘only’ touches 1.6% of all internet traffic, and attempted to calm snooping fears by saying it’s like a dime on a basketball court. That dime, however, is 29.21 petabytes of data a day, a far more amount than Google, which is by far and away the largest website on the internet. Glenn compared the new model of surveillance, watch first ask later, to that of a panopticon like society. A panopticon was a prison design created by Jeremy Bentham in 1787 and he wrote an extensive proposal to have one built – you can read that proposal here.
One of the common themes throughout the program is America’s pattern of trading liberty for the promise of security. Benjamin Franklin warned against this and famously said “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety” but that’s not stopping the practice from becoming the norm. Time after time in American history, we can see the 4th Amendment getting brushed aside in the name of ‘national interest’ or ‘national security’. With technology rapidly advancing, this justification is used more and more. It especially ramped up when cyber warfare went from theory to reality.
A New Battlefield: Stuxnet
With two wars raging in the Middle East, America wasn’t exactly in a good position to deal with Iran. Glenn has long called Iran the ‘head of the snake’ and in 2006 they were dangerously close to weaponized nukes. Negotiations were going nowhere. Options were limited. Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, ordered the resumption of uranium enrichment at their underground enrichment site at Natanz. On top of that Ahmadinejad announced that tens of thousands of more centrifuges were planned to aid the enrichment effort. With only a single nuclear reactor in the country it appeared obvious that Iran was after more than just civilian nuclear capability. Their nuclear program was being weaponized.
The conventional military response would be to eliminate the underground facility at Natanz. This would involve a combination of either airstrikes, sabotage, boots on the ground or all of the above. Both the United States and Israel were looking into all military options available. More so for the latter. Israel just couldn’t afford to wait any longer and a strike seemed inevitable.
With full scale war already being waged right next door in Iraq President Bush looked for another option. General James E. Cartwright of the United States Strategic Command would provide it. General Cartwright proposed a new kind of warfare. One that hadn’t been attempted by any other nation or individual. The proposal was to weaponize the NSA and the U.S. cyber program with the goal of causing actual physical damage to another nation. Rather than spying, hacking and gathering information we would now look to destroy enemy property by pressing enter on a keyboard. Streams of ones and zeroes would replace tanks and missiles. Operation Olympic Games was born.
The program would take 4 years to develop. Israel was brought in as a full partner utilizing not only their own equally capable cyber warfare program, Codename Unit 8200, but also their extensive human intelligence network within Iran. The weapon, code named The Bug, would be inserted into the computer network of Iran’s underground nuclear facility at Natanz. The Bug’s purpose was to cause Natanz’s centrifuges to spin so fast that they’d eventually shatter under the pressure. At the same time The Bug hid it’s existence and forced Natanz’s systems to report that all systems were operating normally.
Operation Olympic Games was both a success and a failure. It successfully destroyed over a thousand Iranian centrifuges. On the other hand The Bug accidentally escaped the Natanz facility and hit the open internet. This alerted the entire world to it’s existence and allowed civilian experts to analyze it. The Bug would later be named Stuxnet by the public and that’s probably how you know it by.
In the end some say the result of The Bug/Stuxnet effectively set the Iranian nuclear program back over 2 years. The launchpad of this attack wasn’t from a missile platform, a battleship or a howitzer. This weapon launched from a mere thumb drive. Warfare had forever changed.
We now live in a world where attacks such as Olympic Games are a very real and very dangerous possibility. If we could successfully cause physical as well as virtual destruction via our cyber program so can others. Olympic Games style attacks on our power grid, water supply or own nuclear reactors can happen at any time. We’ve proved it. And we continue to engage in this new battlefield.
The real danger this new sort of warfare presents isn’t from foreign enemies, although they are a threat. Technology of this level of sophistication is being used by our own government to monitor law abiding citizens – just in case they go off the rails and do something illegally. As high profile hacks such as Sony and Blue Cross/Blue Shield increase fear among Americans, history has shown we will easily do exactly what Ben Franklin warned against: trading liberty for temporary security.
That’s where we’re at – but how did we get here? We have to go back to the progressive era.
In the domestic surveillance world, Herbert Yardley was the original. The NSA’s origins can be traced back to this one man with a knack for cracking codes, who after World War I launched the first peacetime domestic & foreign surveillance operation. He would later turn on government after he felt they wrong him and hampered his efforts with budget cuts and other disputes. He wrote a book exposing nearly every trick of the trade, which didn’t sit well with the government.
Herbert Yardley was born in Worthington, Indiana in 1889. He was the son of a railroad telegraph operator and, like many boys his age at that time, he apprenticed under his father to continue the family business. Yardley endeavored for more than what rural Indiana had to offer. Passing the civil service exam and with his skills as a telegraph operator he would eventually land a job with the State Department as a code clerk.
Yardley’s pivot point would come one afternoon while looking at a secret message to President Woodrow Wilson. After quickly breaking the code, Yardley deemed U.S. communications far too easy to decipher. He would make improving the communications security of the United States his life’s mission. After ensuring U.S. communications were secure he continued his work by breaking the codes of foreign governments in anticipation of war.
War indeed came for the United States on April 6th 1917. Yardley was transferred to a new unit within military intelligence. MI-8 was responsible for identifying enemy communications and breaking their codes. Under Yardley’s leadership MI-8 was responsible for breaking nearly every German military and diplomatic code in less than a year. He would go on to visit both Britain and France training and learning from the best cryptanalysis minds in the world. After the war was over Yardley came back to the States and MI-8 was disbanded.
The story should end right there. But it doesn’t. Instead, General Marlborough Churchill of U.S. Army Intelligence pleaded with the State Department to keep Herbert Yardley’s work active. The nation was no longer in a state of war and Yardley’s work would be directed not only overseas but within the United States as well. The State Department approached a pivot point of their own. Deciding that the 4th amendment was up for interpretation they funded an off the books covert operation within the continental United States.
Due to the illegal nature of their work Yardley couldn’t set up shop in Washington D.C. The decision was made to base the operation in New York City. Those who knew of it often referred to it as the Cipher Bureau. Yardley preferred to call it the Black Chamber. Named after the French intelligence equivalent Chamber Noire.
We were now in uncharted waters. The threat of world war had prompted our government to not only continue but to dramatically advance a wartime intelligence operation. Realizing that the law stood in his way Yardley approached the CEO’s of nearly every major communications company at the time to seek their cooperation. Pretty soon Western Union, Postal Telegraph and All-American Cable Company all secretly agreed to let the Black Chamber read the mail of both foreign nationals as well as United States citizens.
A relationship had been established between United States Intelligence Agencies and private American communications corporations. That relationship would snowball. It was at this point that the government asked for too much. They had crossed the line but we as citizens had the chance to stop it. Sadly we chose to enable it. The early foundation for the National Security Agency was set.