On Spying and the Wrath of Naked Emperors

I have some random thoughts on the whole Edward Snowden/NSA/PRISM leaks, and why I am mildly amused by it:

One of my favorite books as an 8-to-10 year old was “Codes and Secret Writing“, one of a veritable library of books written for young readers by the late, great Herbert S. Zim (B.S., M.S., Ph. D.). Zim stands alongside Asimov as one of the Great Explainers of Science in my childhood recollection. His book on codes covered the history of coded writing,  secret inks and deciphering via letter-frequency attack that was very much state-of-the art right up until WWII and the advent of computational cryptography.

One part of the history lesson Zim delivered concerned Herbert Yardley and the Black Chamber. After the end of WWI, the United States established the Cipher Bureau, a cryptography and communications intelligence unit commonly known as the Black Chamber. It operated under the guise of a commercial codes company, selling code books for keeping commercial secrets secure during transmission by mail and telegraph, but funded jointly by the Army and Department of State, it’s core function was to break diplomatic codes used by other nations.

The Black Chamber was ultimately de-funded by State in 1929 and the Army declined to carry the load alone. Thus the Chamber was closed down just as Fascism was rising in Germany and Imperial Japan was beginning to feel it’s oats in Asia.  In his memoirs, Secretary of State Henry Stimson made the quaint, Victorian, justification: “Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail.” Ahhh, for such simple times! Gentleman’s agreements and Marquis of Queensbury rules do not mix well with post-Cold War realpolitik.

It is now safe to assume if someone wants to know the content of a message, that information will be known; the only question that remains is how difficult it will be and how long it will take.  Thanks to modern, open-source cryptographic tools individuals are able to wield encryption engines that can make the task arduous and costly for most nation-states. Still, I have no illusions that any message is truly private forever any more.

I also had the dubious good fortune of growing up in the time of Watergate while having two older teenage sisters in the house. Being a bookish and curious sort, I quickly discovered that a transistor radio earphone could be connected directly across the telephone line pair without tripping the off-hook relays at the switching office. This delivered all sorts of juicy “intelligence” in real time. Years later, a Paul Harvey “The Rest of the Story” segment told the story of an eavesdropping, wiretapping youth that turned out to be none other than… the young Richard Nixon. I’d unknowingly copied the behavior of a political figure I despised. Melville’s “one shock of recognition”, indeed, “ran the whole circle ’round”.

Tricky Dickie was plagued by leaks, much as the current generation of “hey, trust us!” government apparatchiks have been.  Nixon had Daniel Ellsberg’s release of the Pentagon Papers, Jack Anderson, “Deep Throat” and Bernstein and Woodward to contend with (and assassinations were indeed contemplated). The Bush/Obama administrations have WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden (and assassinations can now be performed by flying robots of death). Not much else has changed, really.

Embarrassing the Powers That Be by exposing their true nature has always been a bit of a ‘sticky wicket’. The big difference now, in America, they’ve sought to make spying on all of us completely legal to protect us from the nameless Fear of the Other, all the while telling us that they would never, ever do anything like this to our own citizens or allies, and, if they did, that information would remain secret. Snowden made it clear that is is a bunch of malarkey, so he’s stuck, stateless, in a no-man’s land of the transit area of an airport in Moscow, trying vainly to find sanctuary.

If the U.S. gets their hands on him it won’t be a very pretty sight. He’s proved that the Emperor has no clothes, and Hell hath no fury like a naked Emperor.


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