Tuesday, March 24, 2015

1978-79: NSA, Encryption, and the National Security State (12 June 2013)

      Somewhere on the web, and I won't be looking it up, there's at least one article calling people's attention to the year 1979 as "When It Changed," with the take-over of the US embassy in Iran as a turning point in the Iranian Revolution, and Margaret Thatcher's becoming Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and starting the Thatcher Revolution (sometimes known in the US as "the Reagan Revolution").

      Okay, but with the on-going disclosures of massive data-accumulation by the US National Security Agency, I'll call attention to the somewhat larger period of 1978-79, with 1978 as the year NSA starting cracking down so hard on public-access encryption that the story, briefly, went public.
So if you're looking into round two of the rise of "the National Security State," between World War II and the start of the Cold War for round one and after 11 Sept. 2001 for round three, let me suggest looking at NSA's moves against math wonks doing encryption in the late 1970s. Why would the NSA care if there were cheap encryption methods for CB radios — one of the weirder fads of the time? Well, only if the e-spooks wanted the potential to tap all manner of electronic communication in the USA: and this possibility seemed probable if you believed NSA was already screening for key words transoceanic phone calls into and out of the USA.

       I suspect there were technological and bureaucratic imperatives going on here more than anything political, but the ramping up of NSA capabilities precedes neatly the turning up of Cold War tensions in the early days of the Ronald Reagan administration (there I recall he led and Mrs. Thatcher followed, but I won't press the point).

       It would be good to look at 1978 and earlier years for context in talking about balancing security — and "Security" is a key word in "National Security State" — and safety against threats. There really were existential threats to the United States during the War of 1812 (Washington, DC, invaded by British troops), the Civil War, World War II — the soul of the Republic, so to speak, would have been poisoned in any deal  struck with a victorious Axis to end the War in Europe, Asia, and the Pacific — and the Cold War: where thermonuclear war was a distinct possibility with the Cuban Missile Crisis.

      To repeat my formula and something of a mantra: Terrorists are a threat to Americans; they are not a threat to America. It wouldn't, but the Republic could survive even the destruction of a US city by an act of nuclear terrorism. Over half a million Americans die each year from heart disease and only a slightly smaller number from cance; we lose over 50,000 Americans per year to pneumonia and the flu, and nearly 40,000 to suicide.

       Start talking of threats to America like British victory in the War of 1812 or the sundering of the Union if the Confederacy had won the War of the Slavers' Insurrection, start talking about casualty figures of even 30,000 a year, and we can talk about Americans giving up big portions of the Bill of Rights.

       But around 1978 a trend started accelerating for Americans to give up  rights to a degree incommensurate with the threat of a post-Stalin USSR or any other immediate threat.
What happened with NSA in 1978, I suspect has far less to do with what they needed to do to protect the American Republic and far more to do without what they found themselves increasingly capable, technologically and politically capable, of doing. 

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