The Secret Military History of the Internet

Early chapters discuss the roots of internet in a new light — the military’s involvement in pushing for a more innovative system of tracking and waging war against the nations enemy du jour (Vietnam, mostly). Levine’s insights are fascinating. He has a great handle on the connection between technology and power, which is rarely discussed (i.e., Jeff Bezos is “rich”, but that’s not what makes him so uniquely dangerous or powerful).

One portion of the text that jumped out at me was the use of major research university’s as outposts for the military hive mind to outsource production and development of the advanced computer system’s they needed to make their high-tech dreams possible. I’m sure that engineering folks —- especially in the 60s, when this was truly breakthrough, movie-like stuff —- were eager to pitch in, because it gave them a chance to stop writing silly papers about what could be and actually impact the future. Even the most pacifistic researcher would be hard-pressed to turn down an enormous stipend to finally develop the lofty projects they’d envisioned themselves working on for years. The defense-network responsible for their money truly had a captive audience.

J. C. R. Licklider was very interesting to read about. PhD in psychoacoustics! Cybernetics as well.

Continuing, Levine breaks down the earliest roots of the internet, “ARPANET” developed by the (now defunct) research arm of the Pentagon. Its goal was to tap into research institutions in order to bolster the spread of large quantities of information.

Moving on to the proper rise of the internet, Levine marries the counterculture attitudes of 60s hippies with the propagation of the internet by pentagon sinecures. Indeed, folks like Steve Jobs were raised on “free spirited”, freedom that the internet would guarantee, when in reality they would just go on to market second-rate aftermarket military tech.

I think that Levine is a great researcher and quite a good writer as well.

His chapter on Google is very interesting because I never considered that even to get the Search feature off the ground, they needed vast amounts of user data to learn how to boost and rank results. The book does a great job of showing how Google’s founder is honestly kind of a creep — the conversation he has with the congress woman is particularly bleak. It also kind of destroys the “bootstraps” narrative — they had accomplished fathers and were essentially boy geniuses. Sadly, The Gmail debacle was maybe the one and only chance we ever had of meaningfully constraining Google.

The parts on Snowden are quite illuminating. Snowden really did give up everything to leak that information. He requested a specific transfer to a Booz-Allen-Hamilton team so he would have the highest possible access to Docs related to PRISM. However, Snowden has a weird libertarian bent that manifests in his tacit acceptance of the spying done by silicon valley. He’s now a “privacy advocate” insofar as he’s exposed nefarious activities by the NSA and pentagon — NOT Facebook or Google. It is very odd that he thinks that private companies spying on people is no less dangerous than the government. Regardless of where the person works, it’s still your identity and interests being unwittingly exposed.

The book closes with a recap of Levine’s time as an investigative reporter at Pando where he exposed the hypocritical nature of the ultrasecret Tor project (which is really funded by the government) as well as other “free” initiatives like the Signal texting app and the Qube operating system funded by investors like the CIA’s private equity fund. He goes through troves of documents in order to prove that Tor is propped up by government funding (it was borne out of a naval research lab) and in that way is just as vulnerable to gov’t surveillance and infiltration as any other web browser. Levine’s passion for this subject is evident and I’m sure its informed by his harrowing personal experiences covering that matter (he was doxxed, harrased online, etc. because the privacy community really came after him for shedding light on Tor).

At the same time, I kind of wish that the book’s last 50 pages were more devoted to uncovering more of the connections between the government and other tech companies like Facebook and Amazon. He gestures at the power of figures like Bezos, Cheryl Sandberg, etc. but never dives into how intertwined the military is becoming with the Silicon Valley technologists, particularly the cloud computing and super computing resources offered through mega contracts. Indeed, most everybody I know at Amazon that makes the ‘big bucks’ really works for their very secretive government services division. I guess this is a topic for a different book.

Overall Levine’s book was a joy to read. He is extremely thorough and placed his attention on a wide variety of obscuria in order to highlight the internet’s particularly problematic origins and developments.