A new letter from the Director of the Centre for International Security Studies
13 January, 2014
CISS Director James Der Derian ponders about the end of the world, the post-apocalypse and the recent Snowden leak in his first Director's Letter of 2014
Somewhere over the Pacific on New Year’s Eve, I watched the end of the world (as we know it). But as water glasses spilt, seats shook, and the pilot laconically asked everyone to buckle up, I could not stop laughing. Like my previous flight (see Director’s Letter #5), the post-apocalyptic dominated the inflight movie choices, and mine, ‘This is the End’, with Seth Rogan, James Franco, Jonah Hill, and an all-star cast of actors and comedians playing caricatures of themselves, was profanely hilarious, satirically dead-on, and the best take-down of religious fundamentalism ever to make it past the Hollywood censors. And there’s nothing like a seven-headed beast with ten horns knocking on your door to put a little air turbulence in perspective.
What we take for granted on terre firma can take on a whole new, even revelatory character at 40,000 feet. The film, the precarity of the flight and the coming (I hoped) new year got me thinking about the three-headed beast, in this case, the micro-, macro- and meta-physical transfigurations of security. At the micro, primal level, we seek the most basic levels of security: food, shelter, and some assurance that we will survive the night. At the macro level, we receive promissory notes of safety and order from home security companies, arms industries, and the sovereign state for protection against assessments of risk. At the meta-physical level, in exchange for faith, organized religion provides a better life, if not in this world and karma withstanding, in the next.
But in a media-saturated environment security discourse cannot maintain a single level of analysis or operation. In the film a sinkhole grows, first in imagination and then in reality, into a portal to hell; property damage rapidly moves into the non-reimbursable ‘act of god’; the threat matrix goes off the charts as the ultimate evil makes an appearance (the devil or Danny McBride, take your pick); and, in the movie’s best of several cameos, friend turns frenemy turns holy terror, Emma Watson. Franco and surviving crew remain disbelievers, fully expecting delivery on their individually negotiated promissory notes. But when home security systems break down, weapons of self-defense prove to double-edged, and the first responders are slow or fail to appear, the sauve qu’il peut response, in true post-9/11 form, proves to be as dangerous as the original threat. By the time the last Mars Bars gets eaten and the prospect of dying before awakening elevates from rote prayer to likely outcome, the metaphysical corollary of security kicks in with a vengeance. In Hollywood – now a spoiler alert is needed - more people are ‘left behind’ than ‘raptured’.
The apocalypse, etymologically as well as cosmologically, is meant to reveal the truth. In this case, the path to a secure truth and an everlasting life involves a series of questions as well as quests. What must we sacrifice to find security from the threatening other - with death itself as the most radical other? Power to the Prince or Leviathan (see Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes)? Material wealth (see Jesus Christ and Karl Marx)? A friend or even relative (see Abraham and Freud)? As life gets nastier, shorter and more brutish with every passing menace, the answer appears in a bath (and with a fair dose of bathos) of blue light: only self-sacrifice can save us. The message might be New Testament, a Hell from the Old Testament, but the depiction of Heaven that ends the film is far from Biblical.
These metaphysical musings got an eery reality check upon landing in Sydney when two RSS feeds were pushed to my email: ‘BBC receives protests over PJ Harvey guest Julian Assange’; and ‘Snowden Leaks: NSA Building Quantum Computer’. While acting as guest curator of BBC Radio 4 Today programme, PJ Harvey, singer-songwriter extra-ordinaire, gave her chosen guest and Australian native son free rein. Assange seized the moment to unleash a theological-philosophical excoriation of the ‘new god’, the surveillance state. Assange opened with the Book of Proverbs (‘The wise are mightier than the strong’) and ended with an ominous verse from the Book of Matthew:
‘There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed at last from rooftop to rooftop.’
Assange evidently had Messengers Bacon and Foucault rather than Saint Matthew in mind when he invoked the power-knowledge nexus. He spelled it out for the radio audience - biblical omnipotence and omniscience is no longer mythical:
‘Documents disclosed by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden show that governments dare to aspire—through their intelligence agencies—to a God-like knowledge about each and every one of us. But at the same time they hide their actions behind official secrecy. As our governments and corporations know more and more about us, we know less and less about them.’
For the previous seven months, Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency (NSA) contractor turned serial leaker, had rocked governments, corporations and concerned citizens with revelations about secret NSA programs. Operating in secrecy and often in collaboration with other Anglo-American intelligence agencies, the NSA had been collecting ‘meta-data’ (transactional information) on millions of mobile phone users, monitoring the communications of world leaders, diplomats, and charity organizations in over 60 countries, intercepting information on international banking and credit card transactions, infecting over 50,000 computer networks with snooping malware, and infiltrating the virtual worlds of computer games. The leaks became a deluge: timelines of the Snowden leaks and the governmental responses display an average of one major news story breaking every day. Closer to home, powerpoint slides leaked by Snowden from the Defense Signals Directorate, Australia’s spy agency, exposed a campaign in August 2009 to listen in on and track the movements of Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's mobile phone. The slides - each bearing at the bottom the DSD motto, ‘Reveal their secrets – protect our own’ – also listed as targets the president’s wife, security minister, information minister, and foreign affairs spokesman.
Then, as if to confirm Assange’s most paranoid vision, Snowden dropped the Q Bomb on 2 January 2014. The top secret documents leaked to the Washington Post were strangely recursive: the revelation of the $79 million dollar program to develop a quantum computer came in the form of a rationale to classify it as top secret:
‘(S//SI//REL) Much of the research in quantum computing is still very basic and is most effectively pursued in NSA-funded open research programs. These programs play a critical role as the major source of new ideas and for training future researchers in the field. However, NSA is pursuing more than just basic, unclassified research. NSA is also attempting to preserve the SIGINT potential of quantum computing (i.e., the cryptanalytic applications of QC) while simultaneously attempting to protect the information security of both the Government and private sectors against hostile QC attacks (i.e., the cryptographic, mission assurance applications of QC of interest to the Information Assurance community). These goals must be pursued at the classified level.’
The articles covering the leak did a fine job of uncovering the programme but a lousy job of spelling out the promise and threat of quantum over binary computers. In the former calculations are based on quantum bits, or qubits, that can be both on and off simultaneously, exponentially increasing computational speeds over binary computers. The NSA programme, called ‘Penetrating Hard Targets’ – a title sure to be picked up and apart by theorists from the other Q school– sought to decrypt conventional codes but also encrypt unbreakable ones. Using photons quantum key distribution offers secure transmission since any effort to intercept the message would disturb the polarization of the qubit, one of the fundamental laws of quantum mechanics.
All good, but the articles failed to make the leap from the predictable (linear, Newtonian physics) to the probabilistic (non-linear, post-Einsteinian physics). The usual suspects were trundled out to declare that quantum computing was too far over the horizon and too enshrouded in secrecy – and by implication, too complicated for the laymen - to be of immediate concern.
CISS begs to differ. The event horizon of the quantum age is not far off in some distant galaxy or imagined apocalypse. Australia, with universities in Sydney leading the way, has become ground zero for open research in this new field. Quantum is no longer confined to the experimental, microphysical or metaphorical: it will be actual in our lifetime. As the forerunners of quantum innovation – that has been likened by some involved as potentially equivalent to the advent of fire - universities bear a special responsibility to take up the quantum challenge. Our response is the first annual ‘Q Symposium’ that will assess the diplomatic, financial and developmental, political and ethical implications of a quantum age. Stay tuned for details.
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