/* */

09 September 2008

The privatization of intelligence history

The preservation of iconic history is one of the most important cultural and institutional tasks that the intelligence community can perform to ensure the continued relevance of its traditions as an intellectual pursuit among the generations of professions which follow. A shadowed profession needs more than most the few tangible symbols of what it is we stand for, what we have accomplished, and what we ought to emulate – if not in strict form or function, than in spirit and ideal. It is these few tokens (and their stories) – whether the odd item somehow passed down from those that were there, or the unique place which by virtue of the accidents of geography and function became key to a major program or structure – that also help to cement a shared vision of an increasingly distributed profession.

Many IC leaders agree to this principle in theory. Yet when the heart of the World War II cryptanalytic effort at Bletchley Park was left to decay, the international intelligence community of the Allied powers paid little attention. Of course, this is not a new problem, but efforts to preserve the history of intelligence have ranked low on the priority list in the face of unprecedented wartime demands coupled with the critical need to re-capitalized aging operational infrastructure neglected during the lean years of the 1990’s. And while some might say this is strictly a British problem, the long history of the special relationship – and particularly the key role played by shared signals intelligence efforts in creating that relationship – dictates American concern (and like concern for the rest of the Five Eyes partners).

Thus we find privatization emerging in a new and unexpected manner. In this case, it is a fundraising effort led by the IBM and PGP corporations, designed to remedy with private donations the gaps left by government abandonment. This is a development which resonates on multiple levels.

PGP as a firm arguably exists as a privatized solution to another government shortfall – the need to protect sensitive corporate and critical infrastructure communications from unauthorized intercept. In the early days of the Cold War, this was considered an inherently governmental responsibility – and one that early cryptographic policy reserved only for an exceptionally small segment of the corporate world, usually only directly associated with a highly limited number of defense industrial base or Federal level financial institutions. This deliberate omission of protection for the vast engine of much of the countries economy led to innovation and the re-birth of an entire commercial market. For like in many aspects of intelligence, the state monopoly of the WWII and early Cold War era was a historical anomaly. Commercial codes had long been in use for protection of sensitive international business communications. Yet the advent of professional cryptanalysis organizations – and the computing resources that they developed to aid them in their tasks - would destroy most pre-war systems based on too simple substitutions or primitive algorithms.

While the techniques of public key encryption by which PGP became the world’s standard for commercial communications security were indeed invented anew without prior knowledge of government activities in the area, it is now well documented that these techniques originated much earlier in the darkest corners of the intelligence establishment. However Non-Secret Encryption, as it was then called, merely serves to illustrate the gap between protection offered to the public versus the private sector. (One can make allowances, however, for the desire to keep all aspects of technology possibly used to secure nuclear weapons Permissive Action Links entirely out of the public view in any form. But thus has the world changed now.)

While contemporary industry's interest in Station X is no doubt driven more by the history of computing itself than the preservation of an intelligence icon, it is fitting to see the structures which emerged from the Black Valley step up to ensure that this monument will continue to endure - especially given that no such symbols remain of their own struggles.

h/t Slashdot

Labels: , , , ,