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.

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury


Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas


Arts and Entertainment


Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7


Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary


Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
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.

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions