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Truthdigger of the Week: William Binney
Posted on Jul 14, 2012
NEW YORK—William Binney is sitting in a dark room on the 18th floor of the Hotel Pennsylvania. A patient, unmoving expression is on his face. A low-volume electronic song fills the room. Before him, packed between two rows of columns strapped with glowing lights, a few hundred hackers and technology enthusiasts sit and wait. It is the first day of the HOPE conference, and we’ve come to hear Binney give the meeting’s keynote address.
HOPE, which stands for “Hackers on Planet Earth,” is a three-day festival that has been held in New York City every other year since the early ’90s. It attracts hackers from all over the United States. Some have come from even farther away. The underlying theme of this year’s meeting is freedom of creativity and expression in the digital realm. It is precisely that theme that makes Binney, a former 30-year code breaker for the National Security Agency, well suited to deliver HOPE’s opening address.
After a flattering introduction, Binney, whose appearance suggests he’s just another government square, opens his mouth and, surprisingly, a soft, intimate, bucolic voice comes out. He was once a “hillbilly” from central western Pennsylvania with a math degree, he explains. A “small town guy with small town ethics” who grew up with a rifle in his hand. With patriotic convictions, but without a matching desire to kill people, he volunteered to join U.S. Army operations in Europe when America deployed troops to Vietnam in 1965. There his aptitude for mathematics became apparent, and his superiors put him to work studying and breaking codes. Three years later, when U.S. intelligence anticipated but failed to prevent the slaughter of the Tet Offensive, Binney grasped how important efficient and effective intelligence operations were.
One year later, Binney was scooped up by the NSA. Stuffed in a “back, back room,” Binney excelled at his work. Hearing the ease and enthusiasm with which he talks, one suspects he was one of the smartest guys there, doing complex work with little effort, smiling pleasantly and chuckling in short staccato breaths throughout the day. The agency grew as the years went by, and eventually it decided to split into two groups: one that handled analytics and one—which would become more powerful—concerned largely with funding. Binney’s problems started there. He had a difficult time getting anyone outside of analysis to help him with his tasks, so he did a lot of the work himself.
During this time of relative isolation, Binney began to develop programs that collected and organized the agency’s data electronically. When forced to seek assistance from private contractors, he found that his colleagues on the agency’s financial end twisted his requests in ways that drove money toward themselves without solving the agency’s problems. In response, Binney took an officer’s class that allowed him to deal with the agency’s private partners himself.
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The analytic group developed a program called ThinThread that automatically collected and analyzed email and telephone data while protecting users’ privacy. It was a smashing success, so much so that Binney’s boss, the new director of the NSA Transition Office (NTO) and a former executive of an association of defense and intelligence contractors called Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), told Binney to keep quiet about it. Showing that the group had solved the problem of data collection would make the agency’s corporate partners redundant, Binney explained, and that would be the end of their funding. Against his will, Binney was successfully silenced.
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