Friday, December 10, 2010

Another Little Detail In The Sovietization Of America

One summer in the late 90s I read all of Carl Sagan's books to date after finding hardcover copies of them for a dollar apiece in a secondhand shop. He often explored the theme "scientific progress is more likely in cultures of openness rather than secrecy." Meanwhile, in the 1970s and 1980s, the then-new invention of photocopy machines meant that for the first time ever, ordinary people (as opposed to "those rich enough to afford expensive printing presses") could effectively become publishers, quickly and effortlessly printing countless copies of a given document rather than typing or writing copies out by hand.

That's a good thing for ordinary people, and scientists, and anyone wishing to share knowledge or ideas. Including political subversives, which is why totalitarian governments like the Soviets banned photocopy machines for all but the elite. Sagan wrote how, when he met with his Soviet scientific colleagues to discuss apolitical matters of astrophysics, he knew the ban on photocopy machines -- what the ban implied about the Soviet government's attitude regarding information and control -- meant the Soviet system was ultimately doomed to fall behind.

Turned out the Soviet system was plain doomed, though Sagan couldn't have known that when he wrote those books in the 1970s and '80s. And now it's a quarter-century later, and photocopy machines are venerable old-fashioned technology. The US government has no Soviet-style problem with old copymaking tech, but the newest generation of technology is something else entirely: in the hope of preventing another Wikileaks-style data breach from the top-secret server accessible to over three million authorized Americans, the military has banned on threat of court-martial all "removable media" around sensitive computers: no DVDs, no thumb drives, nothing that might possibly allow computer-to-computer information spreading.

I'm sure banning modern info-sharing technology will be just as useful to the US government today as banning photocopiers was to the Soviet government in Sagan's time.


Anonymous Alan McBride said...

Enjoy reading your articles in the Guardian and read your blog occasionaly from the link there. If you decide to expand this, you may want to see these:
which were as readily available in the 50's as copy machines later.

9:41 AM  
Blogger rhhardin said...

It's a sensible precaution; you can't trust software, has always been the idea.

So classified work was always done on physically isolated machines.

Tapes and so forth could be carried in and out, but they themselves were classified according to what was on them, and treated as classified documents with their own chain of possession and control numbers.

This is just an extension of the firewall to modern ways of breaching it.

Taking into account bugs in Windows and autoexec.

3:53 PM  
Blogger Jennifer said...

Alan, thanks.

Ron, how can data be shared from one isolated computer and another if thumb drives, DVDs and such things are banned?

11:56 PM  
Blogger rhhardin said...

You transport the data on classified media, that is, your thumb drive is a classified document, and gets a control number and a chain of custody like any classified document, and gets locked up when unattended.

When you're finally done with it, it's destroyed.

9:16 AM  
Blogger Jennifer said...

I'm sure the Soviets had similar protocols regarding photocopiers, Ron. Pretty it up if you wish, but the sad fact remains America's adopting attitudes of paranoid control-freakism similar to the Soviet bad guys of my youth.

9:21 AM  

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