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Illustration by Shaikh Sarfaraz Ahmed
Illustration by Shaikh Sarfaraz Ahmed

The Snowden leaks of 2013 fundamentally changed the way we look at the internet. Apparently, for over a decade now, the world’s elite spy agencies have been secretly and systematically eavesdropping on much of the world’s communications: the United Kingdom’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) directly tapped underwater fibre optic cables for bulk collection of users’ personal data. Intelligence agencies developed search tools in coordination with big companies such as Google, Microsoft and Facebook to view data on users. The Skynet programme run by the United States’ National Security Agency (NSA) compiled lists of potential terrorists for drone assassination by siphoning data from Pakistan’s cell phone towers.

The revelations at the time were so outright fantastical that we are now hardly surprised by scandals that followed. The Vault 7 leaks revealed that America’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) can hack into cars, smart TVs, web browsers and just about anything with a circuit. With the Cambridge Analytica fuss, there are fears that Facebook can be weaponised to warp our political tastes. The internet — which was originally envisioned as a progressive and liberating force without parallel in human history — has now quite literally become the Thought Police infrastructure as described in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet by Russian-American journalist Yasha Levine is a compelling alternative history of the internet which gives these revelations much needed context. Apparently, surveillance and thought control are not exceptional — they are part of the internet’s very genetic code.

Journalist Yasha Levine’s book suggests that surveillance and thought control are not exceptional — they are part of the internet’s genetic code

I teach introductory computer networks courses at university level and I typically spend the first few classes covering the basic history of the internet. This exercise helps to humanise the subject and gives students important insight into the engineering and design of networks. Plus, it’s a very exciting story in its own right. The standard narrative, in a nutshell, goes something like this:

In 1957, the launch of the then Soviet Union’s Sputnik satellite caught the US off guard and prompted the creation of the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) to prevent similar ‘technological surprise’ in the future. This agency poured massive funds into all types of futuristic projects, one of these being an ambitious plan to interconnect computers in different universities to share computing resources and data. The original idea is credited to visionary J.C.R. Licklider, who conceived of an ‘intergalactic network’ where computers mediate and enhance communications between individuals, organisations and governments. Larry Roberts at ARPA actualised this vision and recruited the sharpest minds in the country to build this network.

The fledgling network, christened ARPANET, started by interconnecting four universities, then 19 and then took on a life of its own as the computer science and research community embraced it. Leonard Kleinrock, Paul Baran and Donald Davies came up with the concept of packetising data for transmission over the network. Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn designed the fundamental communication protocols to transfer these data packets in a reliable and efficient manner. Ray Tomlinson came up with email, Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web and, after countless similar innovations, today we have the internet.

This story paints a charming image of quirky, eccentric geniuses chasing a benign vision of exciting technological innovation — much like a rustic scene of children chasing butterflies with nets. Levine demolishes these illusions and strips the saints of their halos. He pores through old news stories, historical records and declassified documents to highlight that the military-industrial complex was strongly engaged with the internet right from its birth and that the agencies always envisioned this new medium as a promising tool for surveillance and social control.

In this highly engaging book, all sorts of new revelations leap off the pages. We read about US scientists researching counterinsurgency strategies in the jungles of Vietnam and proposing data-driven solutions remarkably similar to those deployed by Cambridge Analytica today. We discover that, in the days of Cold War hysteria, a key motivation for ARPANET was to build a next-generation communications infrastructure which could survive nuclear war and enable the US to dominate its enemies, both abroad and at home. We note that the NSA, the Pentagon and other defence agencies were among the earliest entities to start using ARPANET. Even in the 1970s, commentators were questioning if this new technology could be used to spy on citizens and adapted into a “police instrument.”

Indeed, the NSA started online surveillance of US citizens in 1972, when it harnessed ARPANET’s revolutionary communication capabilities to build, for the very first time, national databases on ‘people of interest’ — notably civil rights leaders and activists protesting the Vietnam War. When the media found out, there was national outrage. Students organised vigorous protests on university campuses at MIT and Harvard where ARPANET nodes were deployed.

Levine works his way to modern times and then zooms in on the anonymity network Tor. He fixates on the obvious question: why would the US government fund a project which potentially undermines its own interests?

Levine rifles through archived emails to show that the US government’s committed engagement with Tor is not a humanitarian mission to empower activists, but rather to create a larger community of users — a camouflage of sorts — under which US spies can operate. In the words of Roger Dingledine, chief architect of the Tor network: “The United States government can’t simply run an anonymity system for everybody and then use it themselves only. Because then every time a connection came from it people would say, ‘Oh, it’s another CIA agent’ if those are the only people using the network.”

To build its user base, the Tor team launched an aggressive public relations campaign to sell the network as a key weapon in the heroic struggle for free speech and privacy. This is how Tor became an ‘activist’ thing.

Levine’s thesis is not to say that the internet was a grand conspiracy from the start and all the pioneers were actually villains. Rather, his main point is that throughout the internet’s development, the agencies were always there, working in parallel, to subvert this technology for their own nefarious purposes. And often enough, they succeeded. The internet may have liberated minds, enabled online commerce and myriad revolutionary applications, but it is at the same time an instrument of war, of control, of manipulation and coercion.

We should, therefore, not be too surprised with current trends: there is an ongoing race in Silicon Valley to drum up business with the US war machine. Google has landed a military contract to translate drone images into actionable intelligence. Amazon provides cloud services to the CIA. China is sectioning off the internet, censoring free speech and deploying the world’s largest civilian surveillance network.

In our own little corner of the world, phones are routinely tapped, social media crackdowns are common and bloggers and activists are regularly whisked away into the shadows. The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act has been used to charge journalists making Facebook posts critical of the military and, behind the scenes our agencies are labouring hard to put together an NSA-style mass surveillance system.

Welcome to Surveillance Valley.

The reviewer is an assistant professor at the NUST School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science

Surveillance Valley: The
Secret Military History of
the Internet
By Yasha Levine
PublicAffairs, US
ISBN: 978-1610398022
384pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 29th, 2018