The Girlfriend Experience tells the story of a young man who discovers the key to breaking Internet encryption while working on a project for the National Security Agency, or NSA. When I wrote the story the idea of the NSA monitoring every phone call, email, Facebook post and tweet seemed far-fetched, although I was aware of the NSA’s project to build a gigantic data center in the Utah desert for an undisclosed purpose.

Matt Bugatti, the hero of the story, is unaware that not only the NSA, but the Chinese Ministry of State Security, Guoanbu, is after his discovery. The Chinese are well known to monitor their citizens’ communications. During one trip to Beijing I had an occasion to talk to the head of the Beijing office of an international news bureau. I asked what it was like to operate in the People’s Republic. Here’s what he told me:

We can talk about anything we want – finance, culture, entertainment – but we can’t talk about politics. All our email is monitored. All our phones are bugged. Once or twice a year they round us all up and throw us in jail for the night, just to remind us that they can.

What’s more, China appears to have a robust cyber espionage infrastructure, and they know how to use it.

It’s clear what the Chinese would do with an algorithm that could read encrypted messages. But the NSA?

In The Girlfriend Experience the following conversation takes place between Alvin Xiao, an American businessman recruited by the Chinese to steal Matt Bugatti’s algorithm, and Tan Yingqun, his Chinese handler:

“The National Security Agency is prohibited by law from
eavesdropping on American citizens,” Tan told Alvin. “Yet, at the direction of
the American president, they have done exactly that. They have established
listening posts within U.S. borders, in the very facilities through which domestic
communications flow. They are accumulating vast quantities of data in secret locations.
Much of it is encrypted. They can already break encryption, but at great
expense and with much delay.”

Tan leaned back in his chair and placed his palm on the
table. “So why would the NSA want an inexpensive computer that can decrypt
large numbers of secret communications, if not to mine this vast quantity of
data, gathered from Americans on American soil?”

Alvin blanched.

“You’re talking about domestic surveillance by the
government, with no oversight. Here, in the United States.”

“On a vast scale.”

“But why?”

Tan closed his eyes briefly in a meditative pose.

“I’m sure their intentions are honorable. We live in
dangerous times, after all. The enemy doesn’t stay inside the borders of a
single country. They are everywhere.” He sipped his scotch. “And the price of
liberty is eternal vigilance.”

That’s not
liberty!” Alvin blurted. “That’s tyranny!”

“Tyranny? In America?” Tan said with irony. “Impossible.”

Alvin sat mute.

“Xiao Weiguo,” Tan said, “Do you think that by
keeping this technology out of the hands of the Chinese that you preserve it
for a more benevolent master?”

Hey, I know it’s far-fetched, but it’s fiction, right?

Now we know that the NSA has a record of every phone call you and I make, and a lot of your online activity, too.

I don’t know where you come down on this. I’m not sure I know how I feel about it. After all, the terrorists are everywhere. But it just feels creepy.

And I thought I was making this stuff up.

Copyright © [2016] by Charles O’Donnell, All Rights Reserved

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