If you have ever read George Orwell’s book 1984, you know that Big Brother is the term for the government. In the book, the dictatorship supposedly watched everyone at all times with “telescreens”. While we have not gotten to that state in the U.S., it often seems that government controls nearly everything we do. With Congress and the State assemblies passing thousands of new laws annually, our freedom is slowly slipping away. But at least the government is not monitoring us individually. But it could. The technology is certainly in place. That was the message in a recent TV show on the National Geographic channel called “Inside the NSA: America’s Cyber Secrets”. The show was the very first ever recorded inside this elusive agency.
NSA, of course, it the super secret National Security Agency. It is the largest of all our so-called intelligence agencies and is larger than all the others (CIA, DIA, NRO, etc.) combined. While its budget is classified it is said that it is many billions annually. Formed in 1952, its main goal today is to give us an intelligence edge with our foreign enemies.
The NSA is located in suburban Maryland at Fort Meade. Its 2 million square feet of space is spread over many multilevel buildings on a well protected campus. It is jammed full with the latest in computers and communications equipment that is targeted at listening in on foreign sources. It does not and cannot by law monitor an U.S. citizen or entity. Its communications capabilities are astonishing as it can just about tap into almost any cell phone, computer, or other electronic system at will. It uses multiple worldwide “listening stations” including satellites. These make up the Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) directorate within NSA. Those of us who know communications think we are using the latest high tech technology. For the NSA, our cutting-edge systems are so yesterday. Their equipment and technology go way beyond what we use today in commerce and our personal lives. They can afford it.
The NSA intercepts communications from hundreds if not thousands of foreign resources through its SIGINT division. It can pick out cell phones, emails, texts, or whatever in any language. It supports a huge language lab with over 130 analysts who are looking for specific names or code words based on what intelligence is being sought. And it can grab any other signals of interest like missile telemetry, radar signatures, and other non-human sources. The goal of course is to keep us safe from terrorists and discover threats and anticipated actions against the country. NSA is credited with discovering the location of Osama bin Laden.
While SIGINT is the biggest business of NSA they also do world-class encryption and decryption in its cyber division. They employ an army of mathematicians to make new codes and to break existing codes. They have some of the biggest and fastest computers made and probably some we do not know about. NSA also supports cutting-edge research and development in computers, communications and related technologies. They make and use chips and devices far beyond what we have now.
If you get a chance, watch the TV show. It was a real teaser for us electronic types as it only hinted at the real electronic goodies they have and use. I kept wanting more details. If you are interested, you may want to read some of the books written about the NSA. I first got interested in NSA back in 1982 when I read James Bamford’s book The Puzzle Palace. It was a real eye-opener. Bamaford wrote another book called Body of Secrets in 2001 that revealed even more. His latest book is The Shadow Factory. One more recent book is The Secret Sentry by Matthew Aid. If you are a communications connoisseur you will really enjoy these.
The NSA claims that it does not watch any U.S. citizens or organizations. It has its hands full just trying to watch our enemies. Besides our laws say that if government (FBI, etc) wants monitor anyone, they have to get a court order and have a darned good reason. Hopefully the law is followed. The real clincher is that the capability described in 1984 is here today. Scary.
Note: Wired magazine's April edition has a great article on this by James Bamford. Called The Black Box, the article discusses NSA's new facility in the Utah desert. Whoa......