The Military History of the Internet: A Book Review

“Will — you want me to get you an invite to gMail?”

“I’m not sure; I’m a little worried about the security implications.”

The year is 2004, and my social studies teacher is trying to get me signed up with my first email account. I’m hesitant. Eventually, I give in, but only because I create the account under an alias, not linked to my actual identity, and only give out the address to my closest friends.

Maybe I’m a little more paranoid than most (maybe that’s why I’m in crypto?), but I’ve always viewed the internet and the world of hi-tech with some degree of suspicion (I left Facebook in 2015 for political reasons).

My suspicions were validated in Yasha Levine’s recent book, Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet. Unfortunately, the answers aren’t as simple as buckling down on encryption, or at least, the broadly adopted encryption technologies.

The story likely begins with Persia or Egypt, or some other ancient civilization that started employing technology to assist in racial profiling. Levine skips over this era and picks up with Herman Hollerith, the inventor of the Hollerith Electric Tabulating Machine, which enabled the US census in 1890 to go through extensive statistical analysis. Eventually IBM adopts this technology and the Nazi’s employ it in the Holocaust to orchestrate their genocide of the Jews.

Aside from the development of SAGE, our Cold War missile defense system in the late 1950s, the next stop in our history is counter-insurgency in the Vietnam War and it’s adoption in the United States during the civil rights movement. These projects were directed by the Advanced Research Projects Agency — what is today known as DARPA. The first actual “internet” we encounter is ARPANET — which connected US universities. This was 1969, and students at Harvard and MIT caught on, and protested these developments. During this period, the US military developed a conspiracy that the USSR was going to orchestrate a communist overthrow of the US, and that hippies and civil rights activists would lead the charge. The protests led to senate hearings, and calls for ARPA to shutdown the network, and stop collecting records on civilians. At this point they had a database on 2 million Americans. ARPANET was deployed to transfer these records, and revelations again about this network — which had now grown to records on 5 million Americans — came through NBC in 1975, and there were another round of hearings and calls for these systems of surveillance to be shutdown. No such luck.

At this point, Levine introduces a new thread: the utopian communalist movement, of which my parents’ generation was a part. Have you ever wondered how the Whole Earth Catalog evolved into Wired Magazine? What does the hippy movement have to do with computers. As it turns out — a lot!

Moving on, we get to 1998, and DAPRA’s funding of Larry Page and Serge Brin’s PhD research at Stanford on data mining. Did you know that what became Google Earth was funded by the CIA? Did you know that TOR was developed with funding from DARPA and the US’ propaganda arm, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). Signal also received funding from the BBG.

Why would the US government fund privacy tools? Levine’s theory is what he calls the weaponization of privacy. How will we get events like the Arab Spring without secure communications technology? This is a double-edged sword for the US government to walk, but it appears to be working alright so far. I’m reminded of some of the explorations in HyperNomalisation — a 2016 film by Adam Curtis, about the many layers of perception that stack up to compose reality.

Now, is Levine claiming that all encrypted technologies have backdoors into them that give our government direct access? Well, not quite. But he’s pointing out that putting our trust in encrypted apps — when the dominant players in this field receive a significant portion of the funding from the US surveillance state — would be rash. As any good security consultant would tell you — if you really don’t want something to be recorded and leaked, don’t put it into your computer or phone!

In any scenario involving security, analysis of the the threats involved is necessary. Take your credit card for example: are you more concerned about the fraudulent charges, or the government having an awareness of your transaction history? In other words, there are plenty of scenarios where encryption technology is useful — it’s just that, with the heavy involvement of the US government in the development of many of the commonplace encryption technologies today, we should take the security these applications offer with a grain of salt.

This book is an invaluable addition to the literature, in that it spells out the paradox and hypocrisy of the crypto-libertarian movement prevalent Silicon Valley and dominant in the blockchain space. The utopian dream of technology enabling pure independence is a dangerous fallacy, propped up in a reliance on military empire. Coming from a journalist that lived through the downfall of Communist Russia, we would do well to heed his warnings that things in the US today are quite dire; and the solution will likely have more to do with political engagement than technological innovation.

Levine touched only lightly on the deeply racist aspects of the surveillance machine, and the reader might be well served to continue to follow this thread.

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Will Szal

Regenerative agriculture, alternative economics, gift culture, friendship.