Friday, December 6, 2013

Tone Deaf

With all the reaction around the world to the NSA monitoring every last aspect of our lives, you wouldn't think the NRO - the National Reconnaissance Office - would be quite so tone deaf as to use this logo publicly:
The new logo features a giant, world-dominating octopus, its sucker-covered tentacles encircling the planet while it looks on with determination, a steely glint in its enormous eye. The logo carries a five-word tagline: “Nothing is beyond our reach.”
As LC Aggie Sith at Hookers and Booze says, "Cthulhu could not be reached for comment".

The logo was used in connection with the launch of an NRO mission from Vandenberg AFB last night, NROL-39 a mission likely to be a radar imaging satellite, part of the NRO’s Future Imagery Architecture (FIA) program, which was intended to produce new-generation optical and radar-imaging surveillance satellites, replacing the earlier KH-11 and Onyx radar imaging spacecraft.  An NRO spokesman (the world's easiest job because they're never allowed to speak) said: 
“NROL-39 is represented by the octopus, a versatile, adaptable, and highly intelligent creature. Emblematically, enemies of the United States can be reached no matter where they choose to hide,” said Karen Furgerson, a spokeswoman for the NRO. “‘Nothing is beyond our reach’ defines this mission and the value it brings to our nation and the warfighters it supports, who serve valiantly all over the globe, protecting our nation.”
The NRO is an agency that was once so secret, its existence couldn't be talked about.  Among the blackest of the "black agencies" (top secret), NRO is responsible for planning and deploying the nation's spy satellites.  The existence of the NRO was first revealed in a congressional leak in 1973, but they still weren't spoken of until the SALT treaty between the US and USSR, when reconnaissance satellites were referred to as the "National Technical Means".  Today, while the NRO's existence is known, everything else about it is still classified: its missions, its org. chart and even large chunks of its budget.  An excellent overview is contained in a 1986 book called Deep Black (Amazon's link reveals it's out of print, and only available as a used paperback).  The book also discusses the "No Such Agency", CIA and other aspects of the spy satellite programs. 

Of course, they aren't necessarily tone deaf to depict themselves as an octopus sucking up every bit of communications, they could simply not care what anyone thinks.  "What?  You don't like us monitoring you?  So whaddaya gonna do about it, punk?"  



  1. Definitely unsettling, to say the least....

  2. Hey, if you did key value pairs on all the words in a dictionary, and then wrote a Perl Script for encoding and decoding from clear text to the key value pairs and back, would that be breakable?

    I would run the encoding and decoding only on computers not attached to any network, too.

    1. If I understand what you mean, you're substituting words for each other, a substitution code, and those are considered an easy code to break. The problem for a code breaker is to know that you're using such a code, and then they do statistical analysis on your use of words vs. the usual English text. Even then, it can be hard to break short messages.

      Remember Ralphie in "A Christmas Story" with his Orphan Annie decoder? Assign a substitute letter for every letter in the alphabet and scramble your text. Given enough text, they're easy to break.

      The way around this is to change your code very often. The simplest codes to implement can be hardest to break because they don't have enough text to work with. Google "one time pad" or "numbers station" for some ideas. One time pads are considered unbreakable in practice.

      The guy to get started on this is Borepatch. I'm a hobby-level student of this stuff. He has done it for a living.

    2. One version of a substitution code that I have heard of is for both parties to be in possession of the same edition of the same book, say Tom Clancy's Red Storm Rising. The message is written using words as they are found in the book, and replaced with the page and word number.
      Let's say that the word we want to encode is "thought"
      Using a text scanner, we find the word thought, and it appears in the book on three different pages:
      - It is the 35th word on page 20
      - It is the 123rd word on page 126
      - It is the 5th word on page 135.

      So we can put the word "thought" into the novel using the code pairs 20-35, 126-123, or 135-5. In this way, it would be nearly impossible to break using statistical analysis. Especially if you could use different books for different messages, which would make the code as close to a one time pad cipher as you can get.

      The downside to this is that it is tedious, and no amount of coding can protect you from the biggest threat you face when dealing with the government: the legitimate recipient can be subverted through coercive means. An FBI agent threatening to take their kids, or send them to jail, perhaps.

  3. Right. I've read of exactly that method. Everyone has a popular book that itself won't draw attention. Then they can be sent a message with nothing but numbers in five digit groups. If there was no digit (33 - third word on third page), it was padded with something like a zero.

    In the stuff I've read on numbers stations, they say each agent was given a pad with a different sheet of paper for with a different code for every day. The paper was tissue thin so they could be disposed of easily, and the whole pad was very unobtrusive.

    1. Find and read the book Between Silk & Cyanide.

      You're welcome. ;)

  4. I'm of a few thoughts on this. First I know that they approve these logos months before launch, so it would have been hard to change it in light of the revelations that make it tone-deaf (which is absolutely is). It's not just a JPG, it's painted onto the fairing of the rocket; it's on patches and memorabilia for participants in the program, etc (which the people buy themselves). You can't recall all that stuff quickly, if at all. But I sort of feel like someone at the director level should have done her best to squash the public release of it.

    Then again, if the amateur sites are to be trusted it seems like this launch was a radar satellite, which would have nothing to do with the NSA. Maybe they didn't make the connection since Snowden was leaking information about an entirely different branch of the community. The average guy doesn't care, of course, and it's a very easy thing to poke fun at for anyone hostile to the community or to the administration. So overall not the best way to handle it.


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