Network: The spies can't cope with information overload

THE CRESCENT moon hangs high in the eastern Silicon Valley sky: Venus shines bright, unblinking just below. The air is chill as three figures step out into the pre-dawn gloom and jog up Sand Hill Road, the Wall Street of hi-tech. Cassie the dog is, as usual, in the lead, her blinking LED collar marking the way. Spouse Linda jogs a few steps behind while I'm in my customary middle position. It's 6am.

People who work in the Valley's start-ups often exercise either late or early - the work days are usually long, and leave little time for life's other pursuits. As we jogged in silence, I wondered what was on my companions' minds. Linda is probably thinking about her coming weekend trip to New Mexico to visit her old college room-mate. Cassie, doubtless, is contemplating the bowl of food that awaits her back at's world headquarters.

I'm thinking about crypto. In particular, I'm thinking about the Seymour Hersh article that's just appeared in The New Yorker, which claims that America's shadowy, super-spook outfit, the National Security Agency, has totally lost it.

The NSA, which once employed 95,000 people, had famously kept generations of American leaders ahead of their foreign counterparts. They bugged everything from the Russian Embassy's Xerox machine (which handily microfilmed every copied document) to all the planet's communications satellites. They were to America in the Fifties and Sixties what Bletchley Park's codebreakers had been to the Second World War allies. US leaders often knew what the other guys were going to do before they did it thanks to the NSA's Sigint, short for "Signals Intelligence".

Our spooks were supposed to be able to pick up everything, from Fax and phone calls to e-mail, and somehow filter it down to the important stuff using powerful computers and ingenious software created by the world's best mathematicians and programmers. The NSA even recently filed for a patent on its speech recognition software.

Its Echelon system was said to be an open window on to all that transpired in commerce and politics. Or was it? Hersh claims that the advent of strong cryptography and fibre optics has rendered the NSA useless and impotent. India's nuclear test was a complete surprise to the US: Iraq routinely baffles the US and UN weapons teams and terrorist suspect Osama bin Laden dodges every effort to bring him in, mainly because the NSA can no longer get the goods it once routinely procured.

Hersh's story, reprinted online by the cryptography site Cryptome, has unleashed a buzz on the crypto-oriented Net. Some claim the story is just another piece of NSA disinformation aimed at deflecting public attention from its real skullduggery. Others aren't so sure.

Many knowledgeable observers have noted that, in the never-ending race between code-makers and code-breakers, the code-makers have lately been pulling far ahead. Simon Singh's latest tome, The Code Book, traces cryptography from the Romans to modern public-key systems, and makes the point that the technology of certain epochs has favoured one side and then another.

But never have the code breakers been at such a loss. True, there have been some well-publicised attacks on encryption in the last few months, including one Net-based project that used screensavers on thousands of computers to break the relatively low-level encryption that the US Government, for one, would have allowed in its citizen's hands.

But world governments and terrorists have no plan whatsoever to use low- level crypto. They use the real thing: industrial-strength, long-key encryption. And they send those messages over fibre-optic lines that are much harder to tap than old-fashioned copper wires and radio transmissions. It's just this inability to cope that has led to the US government's ill-starred efforts to outlaw strong crypto. If we can't break their codes, we'll tell them they can't use codes. Sort of like shaking a finger at a machine- gun-toting terrorist and saying: "Don't you dare fire that thing!"

Pandora's box is open. Anyone can download free crypto software that should defy the best efforts of code breakers for the next decade or so.

And strong crypto may not be the biggest issue the NSA faces. Bletchley Park's legendary code-breakers realised their biggest problem was not necessarily the German Enigma machines but the sheer volume of intercepts. The Germans generated thousands of messages daily. Most were routine but occasionally the haystack held a precious needle upon which the success of the Allied war effort might hang.

Today, the problem is much worse. Global prosperity has built a system where torrents of information flow. A single telco switch in London or Tokyo may hourly handle more traffic than moved in a year during the Second World War. The volume hides a single message better than the ciphers of generations past. Indeed, one new scheme that relies on hiding bits of plaintext messages in the Internet's flow, may prove as secure as any advanced cipher.

As I watch the dawn redden the sky over nearby Stanford University, home of many modern crypto breakthroughs, I can't help wondering if the world will be worse, or better, if private things stay private.

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor
    The ZX Spectrum has been crowd-funded back into play - with some 21st-century tweaks

    The ZX Spectrum is back

    The ZX Spectrum was the original - and for some players, still the best. David Crookes meets the fans who've kept the games' flames lit
    Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman

    Even the screenwriter pours scorn on Grace of Monaco biopic

    The critics had a field day after last year's premiere, but the savaging goes on
    Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people used to believe about periods

    Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people once had about periods

    If one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
    The best work perks: From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)

    The quirks of work perks

    From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)
    Is bridge the latest twee pastime to get hip?

    Is bridge becoming hip?

    The number of young players has trebled in the past year. Gillian Orr discovers if this old game has new tricks
    Long author-lists on research papers are threatening the academic work system

    The rise of 'hyperauthorship'

    Now that academic papers are written by thousands (yes, thousands) of contributors, it's getting hard to tell workers from shirkers
    The rise of Lego Clubs: How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships

    The rise of Lego Clubs

    How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships
    5 best running glasses

    On your marks: 5 best running glasses

    Whether you’re pounding pavements, parks or hill passes, keep your eyes protected in all weathers
    Joe Root: 'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

    'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

    Joe Root says the England dressing room is a happy place again – and Stokes is the catalyst
    Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

    Please save my husband

    As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada