I'm carefully not taking any sides in the debate about surveillance and oversight here. I do encourage anyone interested in these topics, and especially those outraged by events or revelations to study the history of intelligence and cryptography to hone their opinions. The nation should debate these issues publicly and informed debate is the only way to try and find a balanced answer to such a complex problem
In the meeting I asked how many people had read "The American Black Chamber" and no one said they had. That's unfortunate because that book and the results of its publication represent one of the previous times there was a national debate on this very topic. The Secretary of War at the time , one Stimson, was heard to famously declare: "Gentlemen do not read other gentlemen's mail." The results of his attitude and actions are worth noting. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Chamber
To understand more broadly the questions about government, secrecy, intelligence, and so on and the previous answers you should certainly read David Kahn's tome "The Codebreakers" which is arguably the most thorough publicly available account of the history of secret writing. He starts with the ancient civilizations and moves forward through to the late 20C. At the time of writing he wasn't able to include much information about Bletchley or computers, from which all modern computer science as well as most modern cryptanalysis stems along with the outcome of WWII and thereby the history of the second half of the 20C and most of the current geopolitical mess.**
An easier read , and perhaps a bit more fun, is Simon Singh's "The Code Book". https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Code_Book. Wiki says:
"The Code Book covers a diverse set of historical topics including the Man in the Iron Mask, Arabic cryptography, Charles Babbage, the mechanisation of cryptography, the Enigma Machine, and the decipherment of Linear B and other ancient writing systems. Later sections cover the development of public key cryptography and some of this material is based on interviews with the participants, including those who worked in secret at GCHQ. The book concludes with a discussion of PGP, quantum computing, and quantum cryptography. "
Oh and you should know about the "equity debate" inside NSA, referred to recently by Schneier in his blog by back reference to one of his old posts:
"America's Dilemma: Close Security Holes, or Exploit Them Ourselves" By Bruce Schneier Wired News May 01, 2008
If you want more food for thought or have other remarks, please share.
Hope this helps,
adric at adric.net
PS Hey let's all sign our emails and see how that goes?
** If you believe this statement to be hyperbolic or exaggerated then you likely have a lot of history to catch up on. Also, Bletchley is a very cool place to visit. Do go out there some time if you have the chance