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Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet Paperback – 3 Jan 2019
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'Surveillance Valley is perhaps one of the most deeply disturbing books of the year. It leaves no illusions intact …'
Gripping and hugely readable, Surveillance Valley is an essential book which painstakingly pieces together the complex origins, and current role, of a technology that has become so ingrained in our lives.
From the Author
YASHA LEVINE is an investigative journalist and author who has written for Wired, the Baffler, and ALternet, among others. He has appeared on network television, including MSNBC, and has his work profiled by the New York Observer, Vanity Fair, and the VergeSee all Product description
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ARPA was born in 1958 in order to protect America from a Soviet nuclear threat. In 1957 Sputnik shook America to the core. It seemed to demonstrate America's military and technological weaknesses. ARPA, a new independent military organisation was set up in 1957 by the Secretary of Defence, to bridge the space gap. It was a civilian body that the militarily disliked. It was headed by Roy Johnson, an executive at General Electric.
Over the next three years it fought to stay alive. Its budget was slashed and directors came and went frequently. As this book explains it was saved by William Godel. He had a counterinsurgency vision that focused on the use of cutting edge technology. He found a willing administration once Kennedy was elected, and Project Agile was created aimed at combating the threat to South Vietnam. Levine paints a familiar picture of covert ops in that country.
In two parts and seven chapters he explores: a new kind of war, false promises involving Edward Snowden, and Internet privacy. There is an epilogue.
Levine argues convincingly that from the outset the Internet was developed as a weapon. Furthermore, he says private corporations use our data as they see fit. The recent Cambridge Analytica scandal supports this assertion. ARPA conceived the Internet as a surveillance device to control insurgents; it has become, argues the author, a controlling tool of all our lives. The corporations behind it are now powerful players who significantly shape our society.
An engrossing and disturbing book.
Broadly, Yasha Levine makes five claims. The the internet has a military background, that it was set up to to undertake surveillance on the American people, that the big tech companies sell to the military and intelligence services, that the Tor 'dark web' was supported by the US authorities to act as a honey trap and that the internet is used by both business and intelligence as a surveillance tool.
The military background is no surprise to anyone who has read anything about the internet's origins as ARPANET. Levine covers the history in a sometimes summary fashion, making a rather dismissive reference ('upbeat and zany') to the excellent technical history, Where Wizards Stay Up Late. His approach changes markedly, though, with the two claims that the internet was brought into existence to spy on the American people and that it is somehow shocking that Google etc. sell products and services to the military and intelligence services.
What Levine means by the internet being constructed to undertake surveillance on people is that it was used from early on to send surveillance data from one computer to another. As such it was no more being used for surveillance than the mail is being used for surveillance if that data was sent through the post. All communication technology can be used to send information of this kind - is Levine suggesting because of this we shouldn't ever communicate?
As for the fact that Google et al sell products and services to the military, again I don't understand what Levine thinks should be the case? He seems to imply throughout that the military and intelligence services (and early on also the police) are the bad guys and so should not be allowed to make use of the tools developed by tech companies. This isn't helped by the language used. Levine repeatedly says that Google 'integrated' with the military or intelligence where what he is referring to is selling them products. So presumably Microsoft and Apple are integrated with me because I use their products? The whole tenor of this seems linked to a peculiarly American libertarian concept of the government as a bad thing - exactly the same attitude that drives attitudes to gun control.
What is a real shame is that this biassed reporting then makes it harder to take in the really important aspects of the book. Levine raises perfectly reasonable concerns about large tech companies using our data, about the US government using the modern internet for surveillance and and more. He shows us examples of the American government's terrible mishandling of civil unrest and citizen's rights. But it's easy to lose the message because of the lack of balance elsewhere. It's also worrying that he pays little attention to the attempts by countries such as Russia and China to do exactly the same thing - it's as if the US government is the only bad guy so because of the black hat/white hat approach, everyone else is a victim.
By far the most interesting bit is the section on the Tor/dark web business. It's fascinating that this mechanism used by the infamous Silk Road, WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden (who is revealed as a fascinatingly divided character) was funded in considerable part by the American military and intelligence services. Levine makes a good case that Tor was set up as a honey trap which led both dubious individuals and honest whistleblowers to assume they were totally anonymous, but which could be broken quite easily by the intelligence services.
Perhaps the most revealing part of the book is a remark in the epilogue. Levine says 'Today a lot of people still see the Internet as something uniquely special, something uncorrupted by earthly human flaws and sins... This belief embedded deep in our culture, resistant to facts and evidence.' But I've never come across anyone who thought like that and I worked in IT for many years, across the period when the internet became widespread. Perhaps Levine is projecting the culture of his own bubble on the world. I think most people see the internet as an incredibly useful communication tool that comes with costs in terms of giving away information and benefits in the amazing services it provides - which it surely does. I certainly couldn't do my job without it.
To reiterate, this is a genuinely important book. Levine reveals a lot that is surprising and worrying. But it's a shame that he presents that information in the way he does.
Most helpful customer reviews on Amazon.com
Those who want to dismiss the book will sneer that everyone knows the military history of the internet - in the same way that everyone knows that Tor is funded by the US military establishment, and that this is somehow irrelevant.
But if you read the book you will find a well researched counter narrative - a third version of story most people don't know - the thinking within DARPA that was about counter insurgency, asymmetrical war, and surveillance.
Previously untold stories, like the privatization of the internet (that warrant multiple volumes of discussion in their own right) form the better part of a chapter mid way through this book - a critical narrative when you consider that wealthy internet moguls are our modern day railroad barons, and their success is based largely on public investment.
Anyone who has a developed understanding of imperialism, and the US as a modern imperialist power, will find the chapters on Tor and the crypto movement particularly entertaining - cyber libertarians who rail against the state, while cashing state department checks and thinking they are smart ones, meanwhile being used as a part of a soft power regime change strategy.
As a person who has worked deeply with the Internet for almost 25 years, I thought this book would provide some interesting information on the beginning and early times of the Internet, well before my time. Honestly, it falls well short of that: most of what he writes is hardly "secret". In fact, it's a compendium of the various ways governments and (apparently very disturbing to Mr. Levine) businesses use the Internet to collect data; and sometimes (often?) misuse that data.
It's hard not to like this book, up to a point. Mr. Levine writes well. The problem is that he digresses from the subject at hand more often than Wayne Campbell in Wayne's World. As importantly, I may have enjoyed the book more had Mr. Levine chosen to be a bit less (honestly, a lot less) obviously biased toward liberal politics in both his reporting and his conclusions. The line between fact and opinion is often blurry.
I would only recommend this book to readers little or no previous knowledge about the Internet and its workings -- I believe more advanced readers will come away somewhat disappointed, as I did; though I do have to say that some of the many capsule biographies of the players made for somewhat interesting light reading.
Over the years, I've read a great deal about the history of the Internet, the computer industry, and the agency now called DARPA (for Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). I consider myself reasonably well-informed for someone who isn't directly involved in the industry. Yet I often found my eyes widening in surprise as I read Levine's remarkable story:
I was disappointed to learn from Levine's book how deeply involved in military research were virtually all the legendary figures credited with key advances in the evolution of the computer industry and the Internet—and how robust the industry's links to the Pentagon remain to this day. Douglas Engelbart, for example, the man who created the computer mouse, was working on an ARPA contract. So were Robert Kahn and Vint Cerf, the men who developed the vital TCP/IP protocol that makes the Internet work. Even Stewart Brand, an early evangelist for the computer industry, who made it all seem hip and cool, had lived on the military's dime in the 1960s. All these men were, in fact, working either for ARPA itself or for the Stanford Research Institute (now SRI), which was heavily funded by the US military.
"For many Internet companies, including Google and Facebook, surveillance is the business model. It is the base on which their corporate and economic power rests." These statements should be obvious, since we all know that these firms vacuum up information indiscriminately, but Edward Snowden's revelations have fastened our attention on the NSA. In fact, the NSA couldn't operate as it does without the help of Google, Facebook, and their peers.
I was shocked to discover that the online network Tor was created and funded by the US intelligence community. Tor, part of the dark web, is used by drug traffickers, arms dealers, and purveyors of child pornography to escape detection by law enforcement. Admittedly, some of these criminals have been rounded up as a result, but thousands of others continue to operate with impunity on Tor.
Secret military history: echoes of the Holocaust
In the Epilogue to Surveillance Valley, Levine reports on a trip to the former Nazi death camp at Mauthausen in Austria. He explains that the meticulous record-keeping for which Hitler's regime was notorious was made possible by using IBM machines. "Nazi Germany employed the same technology to systematically carry out the Holocaust" as the US government and the Internet giants are using today. "Mauthausen is a powerful reminder of how computer technology can't be separated from the culture in which is it developed and used." Given the current state of American society, and the country's leadership in Washington, this point is sobering indeed.
This book has been treated unevenly by reviewers. Publisher's Weekly panned it. Kirkus Review was somewhat kinder, terming it "a sometimes-overwrought but provocative history of the internet-equipped security state." The New Yorker was far happier with the effort: Levine's "tone is often contentious, but, amid increasing dismay about technology’s influence on contemporary life, such forceful questioning is salutary." To that I say, Amen.
Yasha Levine is a Russian-American investigative journalist who was born in the Soviet Union. Surveillance Valley is based on "three years of investigative work, interviews, travel across two continents, and countless hours of correlating and researching historical and declassified records." It shows.
If I could, I'd give Levine's book six stars. It's the most important book I've read in awhile.