Monday, June 10, 2013

Bletchley’s heirs

I’m avidly following the Guardian’s revelations about electronic intelligence gathering, the ‘Prism’ program that is causing  embarrassment in country after country (the Dutch admitted to receiving information today).  It’s a fascinating tech story, fun to watch the shifting political and business lines, and philosophically interesting to muse on the morality of it all.

PRISM 1And I enjoy everyone making fun of the logo.  Who would even think that a top secret program needs a Bond-style logo, much less say Yeah, that sells it to this one (right).

It’s almost as good a question as why the UK intelligence center, GCHQ, has a headquarters in the stylish shape it does (left). But more on that in a moment.

I tend to be a 4th Amendment hawk, the way some folks are ‘right to bear arms’ advocates.

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated

‘Seems clear cut.  The law recognizes two different searches within this definition.  Investigative Searches are the classic ‘Get a reason; Get a warrant’ searches for evidence, given a judge’s finding of probable cause and a police officer’s participation.  Regulatory searches are broad inspections applied indiscriminately to large groups, as in airport screening and restaurant kitchens, requiring no judicial pre-authorization an conducted by government agencies rather than law enforcement.

TIAThe Prism program likely falls under the second category, justified as a reasonable search to promote the safety and welfare of individuals and of the public.  Generally, I think that the volume of material makes any detailed inspection of my personal record unlikely, and my correlated calls and emails probably don’t trip anyone’s trigger criteria.

But there’s no protec5ion if someone did take an interest, for any reason.  They could assemble a very detailed record post hoc instantly, and I’m sure that the results could be used in a creative variety of direct and indirect ways to harass, fine, and embarrass me.  How many candidates for public office or conscientious whistleblowers will be silenced because of this information?

Coincidently, I visited Bletchley Park this weekend, home of the team of codebreakers who cracked the Enigma machine during WWII.  It’s a fascinating place, still being restored, but with working Enigma coders and BOMBE decoders, the original Colossus (one of the first programmable computers), and rich stories of how the codes were deciphered.


It’s a geek-paradise, lots of lights and relays (you can see how every 60’s television example of a computer started here), very good storytellers (our guide sounded a bit like Montgomery), and surprise characters (the three Polish mathematicians who worked out the original Enigma details).

Punch cardA key innovation, though, was a vast filing system of punch cards that contained all of the facts discovered in the decrypted messages.  These were kept in file drawers, then collated to understand who was going where and doing what so that their plans could be inferred.

Just like Prism.

A lot parallels the Los Alamos story: brilliant scientists taken to a secret location where they work all day (and do amateur theater at night), the tensions between head scientists and military officers, the unlimited funds thrown at research, the eventual triumph and final prosecution of the lead players (Turing and Oppenheimer).

There is a fascinating crystal presented to Bletchley by the GCHQ: when you look in one side, there’s an encoded message; look in the other and it refracts to plain English.


And I’m convinced that the circular design of the building is a stand-in for the dials on the BOMBE.

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