Monday, June 17, 2013

NSA, Surveillance, Secrets 4: Four Case Studies

[Revised 6/20/2013]

The National Security Agency (formerly known as Never Say Anything or No Such Agency) came into being from a variety of other preexisting organizations doing similar work in the Department of Defense. They were combined and given new resources because of at least four events (and possibly more) that made it abundantly clear to the Truman administration that this was important work. Three of these happened before the NSA was created, and the fourth was in progress when the NSA was founded.

The four events/activities are (in chronological order) Zimmerman, Enigma, Midway and Venona. These four events all changed history and all of them involved intercepting and reading internal communications from one part of a foreign government to another part of that same government by way of electronic media, in this case cable/telegraph and radio.

1. Zimmerman

During World War 1, while the USA was still neutral, a variety of events occurred such that all translatlantic cables between Europe and the Americas ended up going through a single cable. Without telling anyone, the British listened in on that cable and made copies of everything. The German Foreign Secretary sent an encrypted message to his ambassador in Mexico City with the following instructions. Germany was about to begin unrestricted submarine warfare against the British in the Atlantic. They, the Germans, were concerned that this might cause the USA to enter the war on the side of Great Britain. Were that to happen, the Ambassador was instructed to open negotiations with Mexico to see if they would open a front against America, which Germany would support financially and materially. The British decrypted the telegram and found a way to give a copy to the Americans such that it would not compromise how the British got ahold of it, and also answer any questions about whether the telegram was authentic. In other words, prove that the British had not forged it as part of a scheme to get American into the war on their side. The Americans made the telegram public and it was a significant factor in the USA coming into World War 1 on the side of Britain and France.

In other words, the British were spying on all communications sent by cable (e.g. telegram) between Europe and N. America and decrypted and cherry picked one of those communications to change the course of the war.


2. Enigma

In World War 2, short messages between various parts of the German command were sent encrypted using a very famous device called Enigma. Longer messages were sent another way. The British (and later the Americans) attempted to intercept as many Enigma encoded messages as they could. These messages were sent by radio. The British, with Polish help, were able to break Enigma and read a certain number of these messages on a daily basis within a few hours of their changing the code (which the Germans did daily). This information, a closely guarded secret, allowed the allies to read internal German communications for a large part of the war. Enigma was unbelievably useful.


3. Midway

This is one of the many great stories of World War Two and it is amazing the number of people who do not know it. After Pearl Harbor, the Japanese navy planned an operation to complete the destruction of the American fleet. The United States had a variety of radio intercept stations where they tried to intercept messages from various parts of the Japanese Fleet to/from Tokyo. There were several different codes in use at different levels of security. Station Hypo in Hawaii was able to decrypt enough information to know about the Japanese plan to attack Port Moresby which led to the Battle of Coral Sea. The Doolittle Raid of Tokyo took place which caused the final approval of the Japanese attack on Midway. Station Hypo was able to decrypt enough of the plan, the order of battle, etc, to cause Nimitz to plan an ambush, possibly the single greatest ambush in naval history. Most historians of that war believe that this was the turning point of the war in the Pacific.


4. Venona

Trying to condense Venona down to a single paragraph is nearly impossible. During World War Two, the Russians had many offices in our country to help coordinate the various activities that we were doing together, such as Lend Lease. These offices sent thousands of messages to / from Moscow as part of their trade activities in encrypted form. We collected 10% or so of those messages and did nothing with them. They began trying to decode/decypher these messsages during the war, but most progress was made after the war was over.   A stack of these encrypted messages was given to a three person group to see what they could get from them. They weren't looking for anything in particular, and they did not particularly think that the Russians were doing anything bad. It was more of an exercise, I think, than anything else. The details of this are fascinating but besides the point, it turns out that the Russians had a mistake in one of their five encryption systems and that we could read parts of a few hundred of these messages. And what we discovered is that the Russians had been conducting massive espionage against the United States the entire time, and that they not only knew about the Manhattan project, but had completely penetrated it from nearly the beginning and that the FBI and other counterintelligence groups had been completely unaware.

The best discussion / introduction to Venona that I have found is the following preface on the CIA website.   It is odd that it is on the CIA website but that is a nuance to be discussed only if you believe other parts of my post.


Why this matters.

History has proven that intercepting the enemy's internal communications as sent over cable or radio and reading it can change the course of a war. At the same time, it proves that protecting your communications from the other side doing the same thing to you is critical.

What does this have to do with reading your email? The answer is, they are not reading your email. They are looking for communications signals between members of foreign governments and non-government organizations (e.g. terrorist groups) and technology has changed such that they have to collect a great big bag of shit and then sift through it.

They could not care less about your pornography, your cheating on your taxes, or your infidelity.

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