Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Breaking NSA security--an inside job

Several years before publishing the Davinci Code, Dan Brown published another book about code called Digital Fortress.
I first read this book several years ago--it was published in 1998, before the events of 9/11 that have been used as an excuse for increased government surveillance.  A reread seemed timely given the information released by Edward Snowden about the National Security Agency and the global snooping it carries out.  The amount of digital information circulating these days is many times that of 1998, and the technology to snoop much more sophisticated and complex, but the story is even more relevant.

The premise of the novel is that a rogue programmer creates software that will cause a meltdown of the security on the NSA's central computer.  This programmer will give the agency the key to stop that action if the agency publicly admits to its massive surveillance.
Much of Digital Fortress is chase scenes--in Spain and the NSA headquarters in the U.S.--typical of his novels.  Also, it centres on relationships of the man and woman who turn out to be the good guys and save the data centre from being opened to the world.  Spoiler alert--the key is knowing about the code that Julius Caesar used to send messages to his generals.

A couple of quotes are as pertinent now as when the book was written--maybe more so.

"Over the past few years, our work here at NSA has gotten harder and harder.  We've faced enemies I never imagined would challenge us.  I'm talking about our own citizens.  The lawyers, the civil rights fanatics, the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation)--they've all played a part, but it's more than that.  It's the people.  They've lost the faith.  They've become paranoid.  They suddenly see us as the enemy.  ...We're eavesdroppers, peeping Tom's, violators of people's rights."  (229)

The rogue programmer's favorite quote was the Latin "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes," roughly translating to "Who will guard the guards?"  Great question!

In the credits, Brown offers "a quiet thank you to the two faceless ex-NSA cryptographers who made invaluable contributions via anonymous remailers.  Without them this book would not have been written."
Brown has one of the characters comment that the danger to the secrecy about what the NSA is doing won't come through a technological break, but rather, from a person on the inside.  Thank you Edward Snowden.



1 comment:

  1. Nancy Knickerbocker3 September 2013 at 18:39

    This is such an interesting analysis -- life imitates art! Thanks for a great read!