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JAMES CARROLL

The data mine

As computing power grows, so does the threat to personal autonomy

Christopher Serra for the Boston Globe

I was a teenage cryptanalyst. For three summers during college, I worked at the FBI’s Cryptanalysis-Translation Section in an anonymous former garage on Capitol Hill — the “mystery building.” More accurately, I was a cryptanalyst’s aide. The FBI, in cooperation with the National Security Agency, intercepted secret cable traffic to and from foreign embassies in Washington, D.C. The intercepts came to our unit as encrypted pages consisting only of numbers, grouped in fives. The mind-numbing job involved manually counting digits — a primitive form of the letter-frequency analysis that was commonly used to decipher text — and endlessly feeding punch-cards into a room-sized UNIVAC mainframe computer. Of course, the ciphers in question were unbreakable, which made the effort seem futile.

Yet what seemed like such drudgery back then has turned out to be revolutionary, for yesterday’s war-driven cryptanalysis gave rise to today’s computer-driven information technology. The contrast between our clumsy work with UNIVAC and today’s sophisticated computing makes the latter look all the more impressive. Yet it also sends a warning: As the pace of technology accelerates — not just in ever-slicker consumer gadgets but also within the spy world — the kind of electronic surveillance that many Americans find disturbing today will soon look as primitive as having a college student counting digits on sheets of paper.

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A decisive turn in the history of computing occurred during World War II, when British mathematician Alan Turing sought to decode messages encrypted by Germany’s famous Enigma machine. Turingbuilt his own machine — “to invert the enciphering,” in the writer James Gleick’s phrase. Turing “encoded instructions as numbers. He encoded decimal numbers as zeroes and ones,” and computer science took off. “This kind of encoding was not meant to obscure, but to illuminate.”

As Gleick’s book “The Information” shows, breaking the German code helped scholars understand far deeper codes of language, and, with genetics, the code of life itself. UNIVAC, which failed at the Cold War task to which we’d set it, still combined the idea of representing complex information in symbols with processing those symbols cybernetically. This combination has also transformed neuroscience, biology, mathematics, the global economy, even social networks — the human condition itself.

This month may mark another decisive turn in the story, and once again war pressures are central. The NSA will formally launch a huge new data center in Utah, a million-square-foot facility where intercepted communications data of the sort revealed by former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden will be stored. The NSA has denounced “unfounded allegations” about the data center’s mission, which is classified. But by one outside estimate, it will be able to store 100 years worth of material plucked from the world’s telephone lines and the Internet. If the mining of mass-surveillance data can be assumed, the Utah facility is the mine shaft.

Linked to the Utah Data Center will be a massive new NSA computer at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. It will, according to NSA expert James Bamford, “be the world’s fastest and most powerful computer . . . executing a million trillion operations per second.” It will be able, for example, to sift through “all the phone numbers dialed in the United States every day.” Is that a benefit?

This juncture of near-infinite data collection and total analysis capacity achieves a critical mass in the penetration of secrets. Snowden’s revelations may pale in importance compared to what the NSA is igniting here. Absolute data collection, however justified, leads to the mass destruction of personal autonomy, whether the collectors intend it or not. The NSA is pushing into a new realm where “total information awareness” — to borrow from the new argot — can lead to moral “decoherence.”

Back in the mystery building on Capitol Hill, I thought UNIVAC was about revolutionizing code-breaking machines, but it was about revolutionizing human thought. What began with the military has become universal. Yet as the relatively small number of national-security users exploit and massively expand that power, mostly in secret, what happens to the rest of us who are at its mercy?

These are questions I did not know to ask when I was young: What happens when engineering is detached from morality, or dominion over information from accountability for its use? The NSA aims to protect us from the enemy, but who outside the agency’s cyber-priesthood can grasp the implications of that “protection”? When does the protector become the enemy?

Correction: Last week I placed Malmstrom Air Force Base in the wrong state. It’s in Montana.

James Carroll writes regularly for the Globe.
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