Title:                      Intercept

Author:                Gordon Corera

Corera, Gordon (2015)

Intercept: The Secret History of Computers and Spies. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson

OCLC:    0297871730

TK7882 E2 C674x 2015


  • Computer crimes
  • History
  • Electronic intelligence
  • History; Internet in espionage
  • History
  • Cyber intelligence (Computer security)
  • History; Internet
  • Security measures
  • History; Internet in espionage


INTERCEPT is the previously untold—and highly classified—story of the melding of technology and espionage. Gordon Corera’s compelling narrative takes us from the Second World War through the Cold War and the birth of the internet to the present era of hackers and surveillance. Rich with historical detail and characters, as well as astonishing revelations about espionage carried out in recent times by the UK, US and China, this is the secret history of how spying drove the rise of the computer. Within the confines of Britain’s Second World War code-breaking establishment at Bletchley Park, the work of men like Alan Turing led to the birth of electronic espionage and the first computer, Colossus. In the following decades, computers have transformed the business of espionage, from Cold War spy hunting to today’s data-driven pursuit of terrorists and industrial-scale cyber-espionage against corporations.

Date Posted:      September 13, 2016

Caveat. Perpendat itaque lector cavendum (civilis).[1]

Reviewed by Joseph C. Goulden[2]

At the start of WWI, Britain controlled much of the world’s telegraph infrastructure and it promptly cut all but a selected few of the cables Germany used to communicate with the world. At the same time, it placed human “censors” at the 120 cable offices still operating around the empire and began intercepting and reading the 50,000 messages that passed through them each day. A special unit—Room 40—was established to break the messages that were encrypted. These acts, writes BBC journalist Gordon Corera, led to “the birth of modern communications intelligence… [and] the first global communications surveillance system.” (p. 2) Intercept is the story of how “computers and communications merged with the creation of the Internet and the emergence of hacking to exploit vulnerabilities, which in turn has changed the age-old practice of spying.” (p. 9)

The central theme of Intercept is cybersecurity. Drawing on the legacy of Bletchley Park and the special intelligence USA-UK relationship that followed WWII out of mutual necessity, it tracks the introduction of the first computer, which Corera discloses was a British invention kept secret for security reasons (pp. 34, 384), and then examines several sub-themes in depth. These include the evolution of computer capabilities; why commercial software made hacking a breeze; how private, secure encryption techniques complicated matters for NSA and GCHQ and what they have done to deal with the issue; the impact of the Internet and “big data”; how the United States and Britain labor to provide cybersecurity; how other countries—mainly Russia and China—use the Internet to penetrate other nations’ databases; how to deal with cyberespionage, and the vulnerability of national infrastructures to cyberattack.

Of particular interest are Corera’s accounts of the sophisticated virus or worm, STUXNET, and its use against Iran’s nuclear program. He also includes the first case of state espionage conducted over computer networks that was conducted by the KGB and discovered by an observant American academic. (146)

In addition to the rapid technological advances, Corera describes the concurrent political, bureaucratic, and professional rivalries, as well as WikiLeaks and Snowden disclosures, that complicate the security missions of NSA and GCHQ. These problems have no technological fix and no Harvard Business School, off-the-shelf solution. Corera describes the players in government, academia, business—and even the hacktivists—that have worked in this ad-hoc cyber world to make it function.

Corera concludes with some perceptive thoughts on “the fundamental questions of the crypto wars—privacy versus security, anonymity versus identifiability and the place of encryption—that remain unanswered.” While working to find solutions, he cautions us to remember that the “Word Wide Web is for everyone.” (pp. 389-91) Intercept is an often unnerving yet thoughtful, valuable account of the evolution of the cyber world in which we live now and its implications for the future.

[1] On occasion, personal loyalties and opinions can be carved in stone and defended with a vengeance — at times with some venom thrown in. In these situations, the actual importance of the subject matter is dwarfed by the amount of aggression expressed. Retain a sense of proportion in all online and in-person discussions. [From The Intelligencer: Journal of U. S. Intelligence Studies.]

[2] Goulden, Joseph C. in The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (22, 2, Spring 2016, pp. 125-126). Joseph C. Goulden’s 1982 book, Korea: The Untold Story of the War, was published in a Chinese-language edition in 2014 by Beijing Xiron Books. He is author of 18 nonfiction books. Goulden is a long-time reviewer of espionage and spy books for The Washington Times, for AFIO’s Intelligencer, for law journals, and other publications. Some of the reviews appeared in prior editons of The Washington Times or The Washington Lawyer (DC Bar Association) and are reprinted by permission of the author. Goulden’s most recent book [as of 2016] is Goulden, Joseph C. (2012). The Dictionary of Espionage: Spyspeak into English. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.

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