Thursday, August 22, 2013

wizards summoned to battle the all-seeing eye!!!

slate | It was more than 20 years ago that I received my first security briefing, and a lot of what I learned is now outdated. Back then, few had heard of what was nicknamed "No Such Agency," and the government wanted to keep it that way. We were taught not to breathe a word about the NSA; if anyone asked, we worked for the Department of Defense. That's even what it said on my resume and one of my NSA-issued ID cards. Now there's little point to such pretense. The agency has been outed and is a regular fixture of Page 1 headlines. In 1992, I was taught that the code words we stamped on all our classified documents were a closely guarded secret, that it was a crime to reveal them to outsiders. But a quick Google search shows that government websites are chock-full of papers clearly marked with words and phrases that were at one time for the eyes of only those few with the need to know.

Another thing they used to say at those briefings was that the might of the NSA would never be used against U.S. citizens. Back when I signed up, the agency made it crystal clear to us that we were empowered to protect our nation against only foreign enemies, not domestic ones. To do otherwise was against the NSA charter. More importantly, I got the strong sense that it was against the culture of the place. After working there for two summers, I genuinely believed that my colleagues would be horrified if they thought our work was being used to snoop on fellow Americans. Has that changed, too?

The mathematicians and cryptanalysts I met were from all over the country and had very different backgrounds, but we all seemed to be drawn to the agency for the same two reasons. First, we all knew that the math was sexy. This might sound bizarre to a non-mathematician, but certain mathematical problems just exude a certain something—a feeling of importance, of gravity, along with a sense that the solution is not far outside of your grasp. It's big, and it can be yours if you just think a little bit harder. When I signed up, I knew that the NSA was doing interesting math, but I had no idea what I was in for. Within a week of arriving at the NSA, I was presented with an amazing smorgasbord of the most alluring mathematics problems I had ever seen, any of which could possibly yield to a smart undergraduate. I hadn't seen anything like it—and I never will again.

The other thing that drew us—or so I thought—was an idealistic vision that we were doing something to help our country. I knew enough about history to have shed the notion that it was ungentlemanly to read your enemy's mail. And once I was on the inside, I saw plenty of ways that the agency was having an effect on national security. Even as a rookie, I felt I had a chance to make a difference in some small way. Some of the veteran mathematicians whom we met had clearly had a palpable effect on the security of the United States, legends almost completely unknown outside of our own club.