Edward Snowden, who has blown the whistle on the NSA (National Security Agency – read all about it here) for its comprehensive surveillance operation on its own citizens, has made his employers very uncomfortable by the simple expedient of illuminating the usually accommodating murk in which they operate. It is not only the nature but the fact of the revelations which has done the damage.
The cryptological world is predicated on secrecy, since the analysis of data traffic supposes the ignorance and therefore the unaltered behavior patterns of those under surveillance (i.e. us).
The British equivalent of the NSA, GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) is based in Cheltenham in Gloucestershire in the west of England, but during World War II was located at Bletchley Park, roughly midway between Cambridge and Oxford, from which universities it recruited many of its operatives.
Bletchley is now famous both as the source of Ultra – intelligence gathered from the codebreaking work on the German Enigma machine, wrongly believed by the German High Command to have remained unbroken (indeed, to have been unbreakable) for the duration of the war – and as the early workplace of Alan Turing, progenitor of modern computing.
Bletchley and its work remained top secret for many years after the end of the war. Former staff would neither speak about their work nor acknowledge the rumoured existence of their facility until the publication of the first book chronicling their activities in 1974, and even then were reluctant to come forward. However, such a culture of benign and universal secrecy, a relic of wartime exigencies, is now long gone. Security agencies cannot rely on the dutiful acquiescence of their employees, nor can such acquiesce be bought – Snowden himself has stated that he was living in paradise (Hawaii) making ‘a ton of money’. Ultimately, the secret services of a nation which promotes the value of the individual and the individual conscience above collective obedience seem to have little answer to the spate of individual consciences protesting their arrogation of power; and paradoxically, although they might not like it, that is clearly a sign of the health and freedom of the society which they claim to protect.