Meditations on Security and the NSA


I have a great deal of confidence in the way the U.S. government security will behave now that the President has scolded them.  I expect it will be similar to the way my dog behaves when I scold him for pulling out the garbage bag from under the sink and scattering its contents around the kitchen.

I have less experience with the security community than I have with hungry chihuahuas, but I have a little.  Back in my PR days, the agency had a client, a business that did Internet security consulting. 

(Why, one may ask, would that kind of a company hire, of all things, a PR agency? For the usual reason: to make them stand out in the right quarters.  The agency must have been reasonably successful: they were acquired by a very big private security company that has lots of government contracts. We were part of their acquisition strategy.)

My colleague, Mike, did the day-to-day work, but I got involved a couple of times, and let me tell you about these folks.  They were passionate and fun-loving.  “Fun” involved sports like hacking each other’s bank accounts.  You or I might freak out if you found that your secret account, the one several layers behind the one the bank would assure you was secure, had been, well, cleaned out over night.  For these guys, it was just the kind of thing that made work interesting.  The game of the day was to figure out how your office mate did the deed, and how you were going to screw him in retaliation.  (And how to recover the purloined assets.)

These guys were having more fun than monkeys with machine guns, but that’s how you have to be in that business.  So of course, “Gentlemen never read each other’s mail,” and the barn door is now securely locked.1

People in Europe seem to be more focused on not being photographed on Google Street View than on having their texts accumulated and associated with cell towers.  They seem to have been mollified by Google’s blurring their faces, but, c’mon.  Here’s a Street View photo of my sister’s house.  My nephew was taking out the garbage when the Street-View truck was going by, and he flipped them the bird. (Fig. 1)  On Street View, his face, his fingers (!) and his license plate are blurred, but do you really think they are blurred in the actual picture file?

On the other hand, Europeans seem to be on the whole, blasé when it comes to security cameras. In Barcelona, of all places, the plaza outside the place that Eric Blair (“George Orwell”) lived when he wasn’t fighting the Germans at Aragon during the Spanish Civil War, the square has been named “Plaça George Orwell,” and there, big Brother has placed a security camera. (Fig. 2)

In Blair’s England, security cameras are today so ubiquitous, they’re an integral part of every TV detective show.  In 2005, when Islamist terrorists, in advance of the London Olympics, On July 7, Killed themselves and 52 other people and injured another 700 with bombs planted in three trains at various underground locations and a double-decker bus in Tavistock Square, the cameras made it possible to track the perps every step from their homes to the places where they entered the trains. After 52 people were killed and 700 injured. (Fig 3)

In the U.S. we seem to have less of a problem with general surveillance by non-government entities than the Europeans have – we’re cool with surveillance cameras, unless they’re watching us run red lights; we wave body parts at Google Streetview cars; in return for extra free spam, we cheerfully tell retail vendors and utilities the names of our first pets and where we met our spouses, and even our bank account and routing numbers. (They’re printed, along with our names and addresses on every check.) 

The only thing we don’t like is that the cellular service providers record every event in which our cell phones ping a tower and every text message, and the government can access that after the fact in order to search for patterns.  (Especially if they ever succeed in making practical quantum computers.  See what I wrote about “Grover’s Algorithm” here.)

And now the President has tamed the NSA, the “Puzzle Palace” (ISBN 0-14-023116-1) we’ve been reading about for half a century.

Except I can’t forget those hackers my old agency did the PR for, back in the old 20th century.  They get paid on the basis of how good they are. If you’re like me and don’t think they’re going to back off, here’s my tip: Turn off your cell phone; nobody needs to get hold of you that badly.

1. Henry Stimson served as Secretary of State under President Herbert Hoover from 1929 to 1933. In 1929 he shut down the State Department's cryptanalytic office saying, "Gentlemen don't read each other's mail." (He later reversed this attitude.)

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Don Tuite

Don Tuite covers Analog and Power issues for Electronic Design’s magazine and website. He has a BSEE and an M.S in Technical Communication, and has worked for companies in aerospace,...
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