Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet Hardcover – February 6, 2018
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"This polemical history argues that the U.S. military's role in the development of the Internet indelibly shaped the system into a powerful tool of government surveillance. ... amid increasing dismay about technology's influence on contemporary life, such forceful questioning is salutary."―New Yorker
"Provocative history of the internet-equipped security state, implicating key players in the digital economy in the game of espionage.... Levine, a tech-savvy investigative journalist, documents an army of them in his wide-ranging look at the way governments and companies alike spy on ordinary citizens."―Kirkus
"This engrossing investigation will find a large audience among those interested in the uses and abuses of technology."―Library Journal
"Yasha Levine's bold and sweeping history of the Internet-from its shadowy inception as a military contrivance for counterinsurgency and domestic surveillance, to its current incarnation as a commercialized tool for everyday communication that turns everyone's life into an open book-tells a gripping story of our algorithmic way of life in the making. Defying common Internet tropes that present a battle between valiant and independent rebels versus omnipresent state and corporate powers, no one comes out of this book looking clean. Whatever your thoughts about our digitized world, this book will challenge them."―Stuart Ewen, Distinguished Professor of History, Sociology and Media Studies at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center
"The Internet will never be the same after you read Surveillance Valley. Yasha Levine has done a masterful job of research and reporting about the military origins of the 'world wide web' and how its essential nature has not changed in the years since its creation during the Cold War. I especially applaud his courage in unraveling the connections between the so-called 'deep state' and its economic allies in Silicon Valley with the big guns of the 'privacy' movement, who have scoffed at virtually every attempt at making their operations transparent to the public."―Tim Shorrock, author of Spies for Hire: The Secret World of Intelligence Outsourcing
"In this fast-paced, myth busting expose, Yasha Levine documents how a collection of spooks, cybernetic fanatics, and libertarian oligarchs have exploited the internet to promote regime change abroad and establish a totalistic spying network at home. Surveillance Valley is an unprecedented journalistic achievement, revealing the untold history of the anti-democratic regime that rules our lives from behind a glossy LED screen."―Max Blumenthal, author of Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel, senior editor of AlterNet's Grayzone Project
"An important history lesson."―TANK
"Surveillance Valley is a troubling book, but it is an important book. It smashes comforting myths."―Boundary 2
"Google employees rightfully balked recently when they found out their employer had a number of defense contracts; one wonders if they knew that the tech industry was quite literally founded on the back of the defense industry, such that there was a time when they were synonymous. Yasha Levine's wonderful historical tract shatters any illusion that the two industries were ever really that at odds with each other."―Salon
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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.
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.
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.
If I could, I'd give Levine's book six stars. It's the most important book I've read in awhile.
Top international reviews
50 years later and we're living in a Brave New World, merrily providing various governments and corporations all kinds of data about ourselves, our likes/dislikes, political leanings, sexual proclivities, etc. I'm more concerned than ever...