In the movie Sneakers, which I consider the best hacker film every made, Robert Redford leads a band of criminal geeks who are chasing a madman named Cosmo. Unlike traditional villians, Cosmo isn’t trying to steal a nuclear bomb or extort the world by threatening to release a deadly virus. Instead, Cosmo, a crazed utopian, plans to release a stolen, secret technology that would
render every form of cryptography useless. The technology is called “Setec Astronomy,” an anagram for “Too Many Secrets.” Doing so would cause global economic chaos, banking system collapse, and undercut most government power, he believes. Redford’s character saves the day by stealing the technology back, and giving it to the NSA in exchange for his freedom — but not until he’s rendered it inoperative. Secrets, the movie reveals, are necessary for life.
The Guardian and the New York Times told us today that the NSA has a highly secret project called “BullRun,” which has managed to defeat much of the encryption that Internet users take for granted. Setec Astronomy sounds a lot less far-fetched now.
Internet communication — between lovers, or between banks — depends on the integrity of that communication. Without privacy, there can be no communication integrity. But those who control privacy, and control secrecy, can control entire societies.
Since the beginning of organized power, leaders have designed ways to keep secrets, and to crack others’ secrets. That truism was turned on its head during the 1990s, with the invention of consumer-grade encryption. Now, a consumer with a $1,000 box could have and share thoughts in the same secrecy as the most powerful nations on Earth.
This seminal moment in technology history led to raging debate. As we bicker about the complex truths and tricky balancing acts now laid bare by the continuing disclosures of Edward Snowden, we make a grave mistake if we forget that this debate has already occurred. The New York Times, thankfully, raised this point in its story today: We as a society have already rejected the concept of built-in backdoors, believing that liberty required it.
“Paul Kocher, a leading cryptographer who helped design the SSL protocol, recalled how the N.S.A. lost the heated national debate in the 1990s about inserting into all encryption a government back door called the Clipper Chip. “And they went and did it anyway, without telling anyone.”
We should all know that somewhere, there is a Cosmo — probably many Cosmos – who will stop at nothing to steal this technology and use it to profit, or perhaps to destroy us. And we should probably send a copy of Sneakers to every member of Congress ASAP.