Method and Madness / Little Brother
Date: Sat, 3 Sep 94 11:54:50 PDT
Subject: Method and Madness / Little Brother
Forwarded-by: bostic@CS.Berkeley.EDU (Keith Bostic)
Forwarded-by: Wendell Craig Baker <firstname.lastname@example.org>
The New York Times Magazine, p. 23
September 4, 1994
Method and Madness
-- by Nicolas Wade
Not so long ago, high technology was seen as the likely handmaiden of
totalitarian government, with surveillance systems and central
computers tracking every citizen from cradle to grave. By a strange
turn of events, what is now in progress is the very opposite of that
nightmare. So many powerful technologies are streaming into private
hands that Government is struggling to protect even the bare minimum
of its legitimate domains.
Once only governments could launch photoreconnaissance satellites; now
the C.I A. is anxiously trying to curb commercial systems that can
discern objects as small as a yard across, high-enough resolution to
interest generals as much as geologists. A fleet of navigational
satellites designed to give military commanders their exact position
anywhere in the world is now in essence available to anyone; the
Pentagon has let the public listen in on a degraded signal, but
commercial vendors with clever algorithms can restore it to
The computers that tie together the Government's information systems
have become increasingly porous. The better their security systems,
the more tempting the challenge. Earlier this year the Pentagon
discovered that a coterie of computer hackers had penetrated large
parts of its sensitive though unclassified computer network and had
even taken control of several military computers.
Think tanks and academics have warned for years, quite erroneously,
that terrorists would avail themselves of nuclear, chemical or
biological weapons; it hasn't happened, because none of these items
are easy to use and simpler means have always been available. But the
samples of stolen Russian uranium and plutonium that have recently
been captured in Germany are a clear warning that this blithe era of
security may now be over.
The samples seem to have come from reactor fuel and laboratories, not
nuclear warheads. But that is small comfort, especially in view of new
calculations that only one kilogram (2.2 pounds) of plutonium is
needed to make a bomb, not eight kilograms as was generally assumed.
And the smugglers caught by the German police were hawking four
kilograms for a mere $250 million.
Perhaps the most surprising democratization of high technology is that
of cryptography, once an elite art of those who guarded Government's
most precious secrets. The first serious challenge to the National
Security Agency's ability to crack almost everyone else's ciphers came
from an ingenious coding approach created in academe in the mid-1970's
and known as the public key cryptosystem. The commercial sponsor sold
the program to American companies but was not allowed to export
it. Then in 1991, a Colorado computer expert, Philip R. Zimmermann,
produced a program apparently based on this system, which he named
Pretty Good Privacy. A copy of Pretty Good Privacy found its way onto
the Internet, free to takers from all countries, and all of a sudden
Government-class security became available to everyone. Zimmermann's
next project is to develop a pretty secure citizen's phone that
At this point, of course, it's possible to wonder if the humiliation
of Big Brother isn't being taken beyond reasonable limits. Some
Government monopolies are not so bad: the use of force, for one. If
you believe the F.B.I. is bugging your conversations, you'll want to
see Zimmermann in the inventors' hall of fame; if terrorism and
organized crime seem the more immediate threats, the universal right
to absolute privacy looks less compelling.
Is it possible for the state to get too weak in relation to its
possible adversaries? That's the last thought that occurs to Americans
across a wide spectrum of opinion, from free market economists to
civil libertarians. From a variety of motives, they persistently call
for governmental power to be curbed. The present headlong
democratization of high technology is the flower of a decade of
economic deregulation, and of the fading influence of military
procurement as a driver of technical progress.
The state is so familiar a political structure that its endurance is
hard to doubt. For economists and political analysts, it is the only
unit of account. Yet in his recent book, "The Transformation of War,"
the noted military historian Martin van Creveld argues that since
modern states are no longer able to fight each other for fear of
nuclear war, conventional warfare, too, has become outmoded. Since the
purpose of states (at least in the view of military historians) is to
fight each other, states that cannot do so must sooner or later yield
to organizations that will, like sects, tribes and cults.
"In North America and Western Europe, future war-making entities will
probably resemble the Assassins, the group which ... terrorized the
medieval Middle East for two centuries," van Creveld predicts.
Regular armed forces, as has happened in Lebanon, will degenerate into
police forces or mere armed gangs; the day of the condottieri will
Van Creveld is not the only analyst to fear for the state. From quite
different reasoning, the political scientist Samuel P. Huntington
argued in a widely read essay in Foreign Affairs last year that world
politics would be shaped in future by clashes between cultures and
religions. As the West loses its military and economic predominance,
the counterresponse from the rest of the world will be couched in
religious and cultural terms: "The fault lines between civilizations
will be the battle lines of the future," he wrote.
Even without fully embracing these forecasts of the state's eclipse,
it's hard to ignore such recent incidents as the bombing of the World
Trade Center or the car bombings of Jewish organizations in Buenos
Aires and London. Terrorists with secure phones, satellite maps,
accurate positioning and a sophisticated understanding of modern
communications systems could bring down not just a few buildings but
large sections of a modern economy.
Big Brother is dead. The only serious likelihood of his resurrection
lies in reaction to the chaos and disintegration that an era of Little
Brothers might bring.
[ The copy I received had no copyright markings on it; as it was posted
to a public list, I am assuming that it is publicly redistributable
-- WCB ]
© 1994 Peter Langston