Let’s Place Edward Snowden in the Context of History

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Paul E. Ceruzzi is the Chairman of the Division of Space History, in the National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution.


The late Professor Michael Mahoney was a towering figure in the establishment of the history of computing as a legitimate avenue for scholarly research. He never failed to remind us that the history of computing was more than a succession of machines of ever-greater mathematical ability, progressing from primitive devices during the Second World War. For Mahoney, computing is a human activity intertwined with politics, culture, science, economics, and, yes, technology. Above all, Mike reminded us, the apparent dissolution of everything by the universal solvent of digital computing has a history.

I recalled Professor Mahoney’s admonition a few months ago, when I noted how the debates over the implementation of the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. “Obamacare”) omitted any discussion of the rich history of software engineering and its many stories of failed projects. I must once again invoke his admonition as I follow debates of the revelations by Edward Snowden of surveillance techniques employed by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) and its U.K. counterpart, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ). In all the accounts of Snowden, including his own statements to the press, not once have I seen mention of the origins of modern computer-assisted cryptography during the Second World War. That in spite of the fact that in 2012, the world celebrated the centennial of the birth of Alan Turing, the mathematician who is often called the father of the digital computer (an exaggerated claim), and who was a member of an elite team of code-breakers at Bletchley Park, whose work may have hastened the Allied victory by several years.

The NSA itself has an extensive internal history program, and it has at times published accounts for public consumption, some of high quality. The agency acknowledges the work done at Bletchley, as well as in the U.S. during the Second World War, although subsequent work is not well-documented. The agency recently declassified a portion of its account of computer-assisted cryptography after World War II, albeit with large sections redacted. The declassification took place in the spring of 2013, and it was immediately dismissed by those following Snowden as a cynical ploy to distract attention away from the revelations of what Snowden claimed were illegal activities. In fact, the declassification was the result of a ten-year effort by the report’s authors, and the timing had nothing to do with Snowden.

Historians who are outside the fence of the NSA complain that they are prevented from writing an accurate account of postwar computing history, but we are not without fault. We could be providing useful historical context to the acrimonious debate over Snowden’s revelations. Thus far we have not. People are shocked, shocked! to learn that the NSA intercepts telephone conversations. But that is what the Agency was set up to do. Turing and others at Bletchley intercepted German telecommunications. No one seems to be upset by that. No reviewers are upset about the revelations in Thomas Misa’s recent book, about the history of computing in the Minneapolis-St. Paul region. In that carefully-researched and well-written book, Misa tells us that the Twin Cities computing industry was intimately connected to top-secret code-breaking work? Those at Bletchley—including a number of young women as well as the more famous men—broke the codes used by the German telecommunications devices. The machines produced by Cray Research, Control Data, and other Twin Cities computer firms did the same during the Cold War. For that they received well-deserved praise. Those who more recently facilitated the interception of the German Chancellor’s cell-phone conversations are not getting the same praise. Before anyone reminds me of what was happening in Europe in 1944, I would only point out that Mohammed Atta and other “key players” in the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States planned their operations from an apartment in Hamburg, beginning in late 1999.

The NSA traces its history back to the civilian “Black Chamber” established by Herbert O. Yardley after the First World War. The U.S. Army withdrew its support in 1929, leading Yardley to write a scathing criticism of the armed forces’ myopia regarding such activities. (The damage done by Yardley’s revelations was a major factor in the NSA’s current obsession with secrecy.) Among Yardley’s revelations was the attribution to Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson of the famous statement that “gentlemen do not read each other’s mail.”

It is time to revisit Stimson’s statement in the context of current world conditions and modern digital technology.

Historians have been remiss in placing the Snowden story in historical context in part because of the curious way that the history of computing as a discipline evolved. Scholars have covered the history of code breaking at Bletchley, of Turing, and of the “Colossus,” the electronic computer built at Bletchley that facilitated their work. But the place of the Colossus in the history of computing has never been clear. That is partly due to the bias that the Mahoney pointed out: that the history of computing subscribed to a notion of a linear development of calculating and data processing machines, converging on the ENIAC, a mathematical machine built in Philadelphia in 1945-46, then diverging after 1946 into a variety of modern electronic computers. The Colossus was not a computer-as-calculator; it was a text-processing machine. Colossus, not the ENIAC, was the true ancestor of the modern digital world of Google and the ubiquitous smart phone (which in spite of the name is used more for “texting” than for making voice phone calls). But by the time the details of the Colossus were made public, historians had soured on the notion of “first” computer anyway—a wise decision. The result was that the Colossus never took its place among the other pioneering machines.

But even as we move beyond the model that Mahoney criticized, there remains the issue of how to incorporate the mostly-classified work that was done at Fort Meade and GCHQ. We cannot expect these agencies to reveal aspects of their history that they feel would jeopardize their mission. Historians may—indeed we should—voice our opinions on the current activities of these agencies, in part as revealed by Snowden. If we do so, we ought also to bring our expertise to the table: to voice skepticism over the validity of Snowden’s revelations, and above all, to remind others of the deep historical roots of this activity.



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