This piece, “Do you trust your computer?” is my latest for Al Jazeera English. The world has loved to read about the American intelligence apparatus “run amok.” Well, code breaking and spying has been the key to power for thousands of years, and computers have been key to that power for the past 62 years. Computer spying was a major part of the Cold War arms race.
The German military, during World War II, relied on the Enigma machine to secretly coordinate its attacks. The code was ultimately broken by the mathematician Alan Turing. When Germany moved to a new level of encryption through the Lorenz machine, decoding messages by hand was no longer feasible. This required the development of the Colossus, a computer that could analyze 5,000 characters per second. Breaking the Germans’ second system of encryption allowed the Allies to fool the Nazis as to where they would land on D-Day, thus enabling the liberation of Europe.
Ever since then, digital code-breaking has always been on the front lines of global conflict, especially in the nuclear-armed Cold War that followed. For decades since, computing power has conferred military advantage on a nation, giving it the ability to keep or steal secrets, analyse satellite imagery, target missiles and many other applications.
What’s different today? You and I bother agreed to start conducting our personal lives through networks neither of us own – along with billions of others. And the age-old geopolitical struggle has thus cut a path right through our Facebook pages and Gmail accounts.
Just a little perspective: ain’t nothin’ new under that sun, and ain’t nobody new doin’ it. In fact, everybody spies as hard as they can. If they have computers, they use that. If they don’t, they try the old-fashioned trick of beating information out of people.
Dick Cheney tried both.