Monday, 7 December 2015

Intercept: The Secret History of Computers and Spies by Gordon Corera

A highly revelatory work, Gordon Corera’s Intercept has a lot to say. Ostensibly a book about the use of computers by the espionage agencies (while he touches on other nations, primarily this book looks at those of the US and UK) it also has much to add on debates concerning the balance of power between the state and the individual, personal privacy, and economics.

An exhaustive history of the dawn of the computer age through the lens of the development of modern espionage, Intercept takes us from the censors tapping telegraph cables during the First World War, through the Enigma years of the Second, the dawn of cyber spying during the Cold War, and onto the age of hackers, zero day exploits, Wikileaks and Edward Snowden. Throughout revelations come thick and fast. We learn that during World War 1, Britain severed the telegraph cables into Germany; effectively isolating the enemy from the world and thus instigating the first ever act of sabotage against a nation’s communications infrastructure. Later we learn that most of the world’s telecommunications still travel via undersea cables, with most of the UK’s traffic landing in Cornwall. This has allowed GCHQ to simply sit on the wires collecting metadata on most of the transnational communications coming into the UK. Or how about the facility in London whose sole purpose is to reverse engineer all the components Hauwei plans to install in the UK’s telecommunications infrastructure? The Chinese telecommunications giant won the contract to modernise the system and such is the extent of the West’s paranoia concerning Chinese cyber spying and/or sabotage, every single circuit board has to be checked and double-checked.

Each revelation is more startling than the last, but there are hidden depths to Corera’s book. For example, we learn how the development of computers was pushed and even funded in part by the espionage agencies interests in them as tools. Would IBM have grown as large or as quickly if it weren’t for contracts from the NSA? We’ll never know for certain but the author outlines a strong case. In effect he argues what others have more explicitly elsewhere, namely that the idea of a completely free market is a myth. Rather than develop in a vacuum from the state, or worse, the state act as a hindrance, it is often state subsidies in the form of research grants, favoured status over competitors, intelligence passed on to aid in the winning of contracts, that has allowed industries and companies to flourish. There is certainly enough evidence here to demonstrate that the birth of the computer age was at least hastened by the largess of the defence and espionage agencies.

But perhaps the book’s greatest strength is when discussing the issues surrounding the power of the state versus that of the citizen and issues around personal privacy. I don’t know what Gordon Corera’s personal views on all this; he’s careful to remain neutral. For all I know he might be mortified to learn that for me his book acted as a reassurance. The Edward Snowdens of the world would have you believe that the mass collection of data by the NSA and GCHQ are the thin end of the wedge and that our civil liberties are at stake. But within the pages of Corera’s book is a strong explanation of why this material is needed. A strong argument is made that the agencies concerned have no interest in the average person’s data, but merely need to scan the data passing through the wires as a whole in order to look for the patterns criminals and terrorists leave behind. Should the agencies be stymied in this, we might all be more at risk. An analogy is made that in order for the security services to find the needle in the haystack (the needle being paedophiles, organised criminals, terrorists) they need to be able to gather and see the whole haystack.

All in all this is a great read and one that left me far more informed about the world we live in and the risks facing us as individuals and citizens in the digital age.
I would give this book 5 out of 5 stars

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