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 gulker.com'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.

cg@gulker.com

Arts and Entertainment
Just folk: The Unthanks

music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne with his Screen Actors Guild award for Best Actor

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rowan Atkinson is bringing out Mr Bean for Comic Relief

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project