What hath God wrought?Samuel F. B. Morse, inventor of the telegraph, cit Library of Congress
Before someone discovered the Rosetta Stone, a fragment of stone which had inscriptions written in classical Greek and Egyptian, allowing modern transcription of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, the pyramids and other ruins were secure witnesses to Pharoah’s secrets. Until modern times, protecting military communications took several forms from handwritten letters in cyphers that used increasingly more inventive means to encode them. When machines were developed to encode communications and transmit them over wires and then in the Twentieth Century wirelessly, communications had to grow more secure. Old diplomats who assumed “gentlemen don’t read each other’s mail” (Henry L. Stimson, d 1950), were being unrealistic. As quickly as the medium changed, the means to obfuscate the messaging grew. The leap from the invention of the telegraph (1837 – 44) to global communication satellites and the Internet (~1980) is barely 140 years. And in that time, messages were intercepted and read that thwarted the Kaiser’s plans for Mexico, Hitler’s and Imperial Japan’s war effort, and other campaigns up to the present day.
With the invention of the cell phone, the move to secure civilian communications was spurred by reports that governments were listening in to narcotics traffickers and could determine the phone’s location using ELINT (electronics intelligence) methods. In the last thirty years, companies have made data stored on or transmitted via smartphones more secure, but encryption of voice communications over cellphone is still costly and not generally available. With smartphones becoming the ubiquitous means of communication, whether texting, looking up recipes online, or signing and sending electronically signed contracts to vendors, the expanded need for radio frequencies changed other inventions. Landline telephones, television, and commercial AM and FM radio which had been both a means to inform the public and filter messages through Government censors, are on their way to museums.
In autocratically-controlled countries, filtering the flow of information is a primary concern to those in power. As we have already learned from global corporations that “socialized” the Web, Google, Facebook, and other players throttle dissent and focus (target) messages to audiences that are in line with their beliefs – but mostly to benefit their corporate advertisers. Yet this means of control can also be circumvented in some areas, like we have seen in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, where other entities (SpaceX, for one) shipped satellite receivers to the Ukrainians to connect to the world via its new satellite network. But as we saw with a recent network disruption of Viasat’s satellite network, regimes and other adversarial actors are daily working to corrupt communication or spy on those whose data they wish to steal. However, as nations’ cyber warfare apparatus are becoming very proficient both in attacking and defending, old technology is coming back into vogue. With the focus on the Internet and satellite transmissions foremost in Russian and Chinese state filters, Ham (amateur) radio operators are able to communicate with people hunkered down in bomb shelters and isolated areas in the Ukraine. Frustrated Russian military units, hampered by Command-and-Control problems, fuel supply problems and soldiers complaints over unencrypted radio, are being intercepted by civilian operators half a world away.
Yet one medium is still unassailable by technology. Though a favorite target in science fiction, a person’s thoughts remain secure and unable to be monitored by an adversary. At least until they broadcast them on social media or send in military units. However, it may be that Someone is listening in to those “secure” communications. The same Someone who empowered David to slay Goliath, and for now, seems to have been staving off Vladimir Putin’s territorial aspirations.