25 April 1999. Thanks to SA.
SA: This entertaining story was translated from the Italian press by the CIA's Foreign Broadcast Information Service.
Document Date: 25 Apr 1999
Sourceline: Milan Famiglia Cristiana 25 Apr 99 pp 104-6
Subslug: Report on interview with Giuseppe Muratori by Silvano Guidi; place and date not given: "About As Secret As They Come..."
A planetary network, a global system, an oppressive architecture capable of intercepting, decoding, reading, and storing any communication or message that bounces between any two points in the world. Nor does it make any difference whether the tool used to transmit the communication is a telephone, a fax, a telex, or a computer capable of sending and of receiving e-mail. Nothing escapes, nothing is impenetrable, nothing is too secret for Echelon, the big ear used by the UkUsa Security Agreement (an accord that has bound the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand together for years in the name of "electronic vigilance"). It is an extremely sophisticated ear that relies on a myriad spy satellites, cryptoanalysis stations, and land bases for the interception and transition of signals.
A dozen or so Italian brains (physicians, mathematicians, engineers, and microelectronics experts) are about to bring to its knees this immense potential for espionage that is deployed on an 360-degree basis by the five UkUsa member countries -- the only ones to be informed about practically everything: not only confidential military secrets and information, but economic, political, and company data, plans for commercial buy-ups, purchase offers, and companies' future strategies as well. That is a bit much. That is a situation that is truly unacceptable for the many sovereign states that are either excluded from, or relegated to the sidelines of, this highly exclusive UkUsa club.
Thus these 12 Italian scientists, coordinated by engineer Giuseppe Muratori, the Chairman of the Turin Institute for Social Research and Communication (IRCS), have perfected a system known as Ermes, capable of countering and of neutralizing the Echelon network's listening and discovery capabilities.
One may legitimately ask oneself: What is happening? Has a new season begun in the life of top secret messages? Are we witnessing a clash between spies within the Western camp? Are we seeing a far from diplomatic clash between secret services in Europe and the United States at such a sensitive moment, with a war on in the Balkans?
"Echelon is an extremely powerful and invasive system and, when it perverts international competition, it is also a means of perpetrating social injustice:" Engineer Muratori chose to go at it in a somewhat roundabout way. "Other industrially advanced countries have been racking their brains for years trying to devise 'something' capable of neutralizing the superespionage network run by the United States. We Italians joined this international competition in which researchers, analysts, and scholars were all taking part, and we have managed to beat our adversaries to it, becoming the first to achieve the objective."
[Guidi] Thanks to what diabolical intuition?
[Muratori] We pursued several paths: Our competitors put all their money on the speed and power of supercomputers, in other words on equipment that in an extremely short time, meaning fractions of a second, can manage to decode almost any encrypted message written in code, even the most complicated one. They went searching for an impossible decoding process. My institute, on the other hand, put its money on the power of mathematics.
[Guidi] What do you mean by that?
[Muratori] I certainly cannot reveal the secret of secrets, but I will attempt to explain the philosophy behind Ermes. Our system codifies the message to be transmitted using an encryption method, in other words a way of writing in code, that is even more perfect than any other technique in existence; the text is then compressed until it becomes a microscopic dot that is very small but still visible; it is then further transformed into a transparent microdot that is so small that it is invisible even to Echelon. Only then is the message hidden, without leaving any trace, inside cyberspace, which is a real place, a true space, not a virtual one. It is the sphere that surrounds the planet Earth, and in which all possible communication takes place.
[Guidi] To put it bluntly, the message exists but it cannot be seen, and if it cannot be seen it cannot end up under "indiscreet" eyes. Is that the way it works?
[Muratori] More or less. Transparency and concealment in cyberspace are Ermes' strong points, but also the method of codification -- that have been perfected after 12 years of research by a mathematician whose name I cannot reveal for security reasons -- is a rare example of analytical intuition: It is a code based on Gaussian distribution, with error control and stochastic redundancy based on a system of functional equations...
[Guidi] Stop, Mr. Muratori, please! I cannot understand a word you are saying.
[Muratori] I can believe that. So try and see the thing from this point of view: Our mathematician has succeeded in creating a numeric mayhem, a haystack of millions and millions of numbers, inside which he has hidden the proverbial needle, in other words the information. Do not forget that a message always travels from a transmitting station to a receiving station, which are usually two computers. If the receiver, after recovering the encrypted message from cyberspace -- thanks to an access key equipped with spatial coordinates -- now wants to decode it, he needs a mathematical filter enabling him to separate out the numbers carrying the message (very very few) from those with no significance (a huge number). In short, the mathematical filter works like a kind of magnet that attracts only the information engraved on metal plaques and not that written on sheets of paper.
[Guidi] So Ermes presents two insurmountable obstacles: on the one hand an invisible message, and on the other the ability to decode it only if one possesses the solution to a very complicated mathematical equation. At this juncture people who want to engage in espionage are in for a tough time.
[Muratori] They are in for a very tough time.
[Guidi] How did the group of scientists that you coordinated work?
[Muratori] They worked separately, each one busying himself with one piece of the puzzle and each one unaware of the existence and work of the others.
[Guidi] It sounds like the plot of a movie.
[Muratori] Movies like "The Fraud Lords" or, more recently, "Public Enemy" provide glimpses of situations that are really possible and that often do occur. The Ermes system was presented in Brussels a few days ago, at the headquarters of the European Parliament which, through the Directorate General for Research, has been voicing its concern for some time over Echelon's invasive powers, to the extent that Swedish European Member of Parliament Inger Schoerling, in the course of a recent debate, went as far as to say: "An electronic global surveillance system covering every phone call, fax, telex, or e-mail is totally unacceptable. Who is going to set limits on Echelon's activities, and on the basis of what criteria? Could we be moving toward a society similar to the one depicted by [British author George] Orwell?" These words cannot have been well received in Fort Meade, in Maryland, where Echelon has its headquarters.
[Guidi] Mr. Muratori, whoever controls communications holds a major swathe of power. Through Ermes you are altering consolidated balances. Are you not afraid?
[Muratori] No, I am not. Ermes is going to force the United States to sit down around a table with the Europeans in order for us to review together the protocol underlying electronic surveillance.
[Description of source: Milan Famiglia Cristiana in Italian -- top-circulation weekly news magazine covering international and domestic issues, published by Periodici San Paolo, Catholic publishing company with strong Vatican connections; root URL as of filing date: http://www.sanpaolo.org/fc]