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NY Times Fears C'punks

The New York Times Magazine, p. 23
September 4, 1994

Method and Madness

Nicolas Wade

Little Brother

Not so long ago, high technology was seen as the likely 
handmaiden of
totalitarian government, with surveillance systems and central 
tracking  every citizen from cradle to grave. By a strange turn 
events, what is now in progress is the very opposite of that 
So many powerful technologies are streaming into private hands 
Government is struggling to protect even the bare minimum of 
legitimate domains.

Once only governments could launch photoreconnaissance 
satellites; now
the C.I A. is anxiously trying to curb commercial systems that 
discern objects as small as a yard across, high-enough 
resolution to
interest generals as much as geologists. A fleet of 
satellites designed to give military commanders their exact 
anywhere in the world is now in essence available to anyone; 
Pentagon has let the public listen in on a degraded signal, but
commercial vendors with clever algorithms can restore it to
near-military accuracy.

The computers that tie together the Government's information 
have become increasingly porous. The better their security 
systems, the
more tempting the challenge. Earlier this year the Pentagon 
that a coterie of computer hackers had penetrated large parts 
of its
sensitive though unclassified computer network and had even 
control of several military computers.

Think tanks and academics have warned for years, quite 
erroneously, that
terrorists would avail themselves of nuclear, chemical or 
weapons; it hasn't happened, because none of these items are 
easy to use
and simpler means have always been available. But the samples 
of stolen
Russian uranium and plutonium that have recently been captured 
Germany are a clear warning that this blithe era of security 
may now be

The samples seem to have come from reactor fuel and 
laboratories, not
nuclear warheads. But that is small comfort, especially in view 
of new
calculations that only one kilogram (2.2 pounds) of plutonium 
is needed
to make a bomb, not eight kilograms as was generally assumed. 
And the
smugglers caught by the German police were hawking four 
kilograms for a
mere $250 million.

Perhaps the most surprising democratization of high technology 
is that of
cryptography, once an elite art of those who guarded 
Government's most
precious secrets. The first serious challenge to the National 
Agency's ability to crack almost everyone else's ciphers came 
from an
ingenious coding approach created in academe in the mid-1970's 
and known
as the public key cryptosystem. The commercial sponsor sold the 
to American companies but was not allowed to export it. Then in 
1991, a
Colorado computer expert, Philip R. Zimmermann, produced a 
apparently based on this system, which he named Pretty Good 
Privacy. A
copy of Pretty Good Privacy found its way onto the Internet, 
free to
takers from all countries, and all of a sudden Government-class 
became available to everyone. Zimmermann's next project is to 
develop a
pretty secure citizen's phone that scrambles conversations.

At this point, of course, it's possible to wonder if the 
humiliation of
Big Brother isn't being taken beyond reasonable limits. Some 
monopolies are not so bad: the use of force, for one. If you 
believe the
F.B.I. is bugging your conversations, you'll want to see 
Zimmermann in
the inventors' hall of fame; if terrorism and organized crime 
seem the
more immediate threats, the universal right to absolute privacy 
less compelling.

Is it possible for the state to get too weak in relation to its 
adversaries? That's the last thought that occurs to Americans 
across a
wide spectrum of opinion, from free market economists to civil
libertarians. From a variety of motives, they persistently call 
governmental power to be curbed. The present headlong 
democratization of
high technology is the flower of a decade of economic 
deregulation, and
of the fading influence of military procurement as a driver of 

The state is so familiar a political structure that its 
endurance is
hard to doubt. For economists and political analysts, it is the 
unit of account. Yet in his recent book, "The Transformation of 
the noted military historian Martin van Creveld argues that 
since modern
states are no longer able to fight each other for fear of 
nuclear war,
conventional warfare, too, has become outmoded. Since the 
purpose of
states (at least in the view of military historians) is to 
fight each
other, states that cannot do so must sooner or later yield to
organizations that will, like sects, tribes and cults.

"In North America and Western Europe, future war-making 
entities will
probably resemble the Assassins, the group which ... terrorized 
medieval Middle East for two centuries," van Creveld predicts. 
armed forces, as has happened in Lebanon, will degenerate into 
forces or mere armed gangs; the day of the condottieri will 

Van Creveld is not the only analyst to fear for the state. From 
different reasoning, the political scientist Samuel P. 
Huntington argued
in a widely read essay in Foreign Affairs last year that world 
would be shaped in future by clashes between cultures and 
religions. As
the West loses its military and economic predominance, the
counterresponse from the rest of the world will be couched in 
and cultural terms: "The fault lines between civilizations will 
be the
battle lines of the future," he wrote.

Even without fully embracing these forecasts of the state's 
it's hard to ignore such recent incidents as the bombing of the 
Trade Center or the car bombings of Jewish organizations in 
Buenos Aires
and London. Terrorists with secure phones, satellite maps, 
positioning and a sophisticated understanding of modern 
systems could bring down not just a few buildings but large 
sections of
a modern economy.

Big Brother is dead. The only serious likelihood of his 
lies in reaction to the chaos and disintegration that an era of 
Brothers might bring.