BOB GARFIELD: You may have been shocked hear about the proposed partnerships between tech titans like Google and the US military and police forces but, according to Yasha Levine, you shouldn’t have been because, as he argues in his new book, Surveillance Valley, the internet has always gone hand in hand with mass surveillance and has been pioneered and heavily funded by the US government. Levine found that while the preferred internet lore focuses on California hippies and libertarians and Merry Pranksters taking government cash to build out a computer network utopia, government and military goals were always front and center, and it all kicked into high gear, Levine says, in the 1960s.
YASHA LEVINE: The Pentagon was hoping to develop new kinds of ways of managing warfare and managing strife, to give the Pentagon a kind of x-ray vision of what's happening in the world. A kind of global surveillance network at the time was very crude and rudimentary but the early internet and the computer technology that was connected to it, monitors, keyboards, mice, collaborative document editing, things like that, these were the bedrock of the global command-and-control system, closely tied to spying on the world.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, now that is kind of amazing, not because it's Orwellian -- we’ve ceased to be amazed by that -- but because [LAUGHS] it's so visionary. It anticipates the kinds of computing power and speed and, most of all, online ubiquity -- gigantic networks -- that would have been the stuff of Philip K. Dick at the time or maybe The Jetsons. This all took place via a Pentagon agency called ARPA. Who were these people?
YASHA LEVINE: ARPA was actually supposed to be a kind of military NASA that was created in the wake of the Sputnik scandal. America had a freak out over that because the Soviets made, got into space first and they launched Sputnik, the satellite, on top of an intercontinental ballistic missile. And so, ARPA was launched as a response to that. After John F. Kennedy became president, it was turned into the hub for advanced weapons design and counterinsurgency and figuring out new ways to fight a new kind of war.
So ARPA worked on all sorts of projects during the Vietnam War, from developing and testing the M-16 rifle to testing and developing Agent Orange. They were also involved in helping the Air Force create the first surveillance system of a battlefield. And so, ARPA was involved in all sorts of things in the Vietnam War. And out of that research came also the, the project that gave birth to the ARPANET. And then this ARPANET over the decades morphed into the internet and to the commercial system that we use today.
BOB GARFIELD: I just want to be clear here because, on the one side, there were the military roots of the project and then, on the other, were the civilian academic and, and commercial pioneers, the likes of Vint Cerf who is recognized as one of the fathers of the internet and who worked on ARPANET.
VINT CERF: Now, we knew that we were exploring new territory. We knew that computers were potentially very powerful things. We had heard from visionaries that you could do things with computers that were not just crunching numbers, that these things could be used to augment human intellect.
BOB GARFIELD: And John Perry Barlow, who was cofounder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy advocacy NGO, who evangelized about the utopian democratic aspects of computer technology and this thing called the internet.
JOHN PERRY BARLOW: We need, in essence, to cut out the middleman and speak directly to one another. We need a place where we can share information unfiltered by the needs or desires of either Big Brother or the marketing department down at Channel 6.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, you’re not saying they were somehow dupes, are you? I mean, they didn't get suckered into opening the gates for the Pentagon's Trojan horse, right?
YASHA LEVINE: Well, no, I don't, I don’t think they’re that but you have to separate them out because Vint Cerf, of course, was a military contractor. He helped the military develop applications that ran on the ARPANET in the ‘70s and he ran simulations using ARPANET technology that simulated, for instance, a NATO tank battle in Eastern Europe. So Vint Cerf, from the beginning, was involved in military applications of this technology personally. He knew exactly what he was doing.
John Perry Barlow was different. He was a rancher and a, and a songwriter for the Grateful Dead who was part of this crew in the Bay Area of early adopters of the internet and internet technology, and so he became kind of a, a booster for this and a believer. So they're not like, they’re not conmen. They’re not trying to dupe us.
BOB GARFIELD: All right now, moving closer to right now, in a big data world there has always been some level of uneasiness about privacy and unwitting participation or even submission to a surveillance state. Then, in 2013, came Edward Snowden's revelations about mass NSA surveillance of civilian communications, and that vague unease turned to outrage. But there was comfort in knowing that technology provided the solutions to the problems created by technology, such as Tor and the app called Signal.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Tor is like internet Explorer but it's an anonymity network that does not track your comings and goings online. NSA leak source Edward Snowden has the Tor symbol on his laptop.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: -- an open source software group has announced their creation of Signal. Now, that’s a free app that allows people to encrypt their phone calls for free.
YASHA LEVINE: So the Tor browser, it’s a separate browser that you download and that you use, and it promises to protect your anonymity on the internet. So the websites that you go to don't know who you are. The tool is also the foundation of the dark web, so all those dark web marketplaces that we hear about where you can buy all the illegal stuff, like drugs and guns and child abuse pornography, that also runs on the Tor network, which allows that kind of anonymity. Signal is an app that you can download for your phone and it encrypts your chat messages. And Signal’s engine for encryption has been adopted, actually, by Google and Facebook in their chat applications.
BOB GARFIELD: So that’s great. These apps have delivered us from the prying eyes of the state, whether it's the Iranian state or the US government. We can navigate around the net without fear because these civilian heroes have given us the tools to do so.
YASHA LEVINE: Except not. [LAUGHS] And one thing that I outline in my book is just how dependent both Signal and Tor are on government contracts. So Tor, anywhere from 90 to 98 percent of its budget depends on government contracts. Signal is less transparent about its finances but it's received millions of dollars in government contracts, as well. And the origins of Tor are very interesting. The origins of Tor are not to protect human rights, are not to protect dissidents in Iran or China. Tor originated in a US Naval laboratory as a way of protecting spies from surveillance. So imagine if you're conducting an investigation for the FBI and you’re trying to infiltrate, let’s say, an animal rights group on the internet, if you are sitting in an FBI office and you go and register with this forum, the administrator will see your IP address and, if they take the time to trace that, they’ll be like, wait a second, this guy is the Fed. And so, you needed a technology that could hide your information. But the problem was if it's only American agents using this system, it defeats its purpose because it’s like, oh, they’re using Tor, another Fed. So the only way that that system could work was if it's used by as broad a range of people as possible.
BOB GARFIELD: Aha, make it ubiquitous so that we’re not dimed out by the very fact of being on the platform.
YASHA LEVINE: Exactly. And that’s what Tor has become. It is a general purpose network. Anybody can use it. It’s used by criminals. It’s used by hackers. It’s used by foreign governments to hide their tracks. And, of course, it’s used by the military and it’s used by the FBI. And to me, what’s interesting about the Tor project is that it shows that the military is so involved in every part of the network that it even controls and develops parts of the network that are supposed to be opposed to it.
BOB GARFIELD: But that doesn't necessarily mean the government has backdoors to subvert the encryption or the IP address masking, does it?
YASHA LEVINE: No, not necessarily. I have not seen evidence that there are backdoors. But you don't really need backdoors these days. As numerous disclosures and leaks from the CIA and from the NSA have shown, these agencies, intelligence agencies, have tools that exploit vulnerabilities in software, not even necessarily in Tor or in Signal but in the underlying operating systems on which they run.
And there's another aspect to it, which is not about backdoors or paranoia about government surveillance. My biggest problem with these tools is that they distract from a, a bigger problem that exists on the internet. It is in Google's interest, it is in Facebook's interest to promote Tor and to promote Signal because these two privacy tools do not threaten their business models. When you use Tor and you log into your Facebook or you log into your Gmail account, Tor no longer can protect you because Google knows who you are you. You’ve just logged into their service. Facebook knows who you are because you’ve logged into their service.
Signal only protects a very narrow band of your communications, messages that you’ve sent to other people. It doesn’t protect you from the surveillance that happens on the internet as a matter of routine and it doesn't protect you from Facebook giving away or selling your data, like we’ve seen with Cambridge Analytica. So these tools give people a false sense of privacy, and we don't have any privacy.
BOB GARFIELD: But when used as directed, right, these things do work and a lot of people depend on it, whether they’re dissidents in Iran or journalists in Russia or, for that matter, journalists covering the Trump White House. Encryption technology allows them to communicate in ways that protects them and their would-be sources. I mean, imperfect though it may be, it’s, it’s not nothin’!
YASHA LEVINE: I’m not saying it’s nothing. There are uses of it. Tor narrowly protects you when you’re browsing the internet and it’s sometimes important and useful to people around the world. Signal only protects a very narrow band of communication. It doesn't protect anything else that happens on your Android phone, which siphons up all of the information that it can collect and sends it to Google. So they are, as general tools to protect your privacy, ineffective. And there is no alternative today. Like, what do you do if you want to protect yourself from Google? There is nothing you can do.
BOB GARFIELD: If I understand correctly what you are saying, we should be far less concerned about the military having its fingers on everything and more concerned with the idea of private industry like Google and Facebook creating the very surveillance state that the military first envisioned, which is worse!
YASHA LEVINE: They’re connected, right because the NSA does not run its own social media platform. That social media platform is run by Facebook. Yet, the NSA can grab the data that's on Facebook, in various ways, in legal ways through the FISA Court or in less, you know, “legal,” quote, unquote ways by secretly splicing into the data or hacking Facebook servers. So everything that Facebook collects, it will end up in the NSA's hands, if it wants to.
So we have to focus not on just government surveillance but on the private telecommunication systems and the platforms that make that surveillance possible. And so, as a privacy movement or as privacy politics, we need to focus much more broadly and move away from simplistic technological solutions into political solutions because that's really the only way that we’re going to guarantee our privacy in some kind of way.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: Yasha, thank you very much.
YASHA LEVINE: My pleasure.
BOB GARFIELD: Yasha Levine is a journalist and author of Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet.
Coming up, what if Babe Ruth had been a vegan? How fanciful questions, reimagining sports history allow us to make sense of the history that actually took place. This is On the Media.