WikiLeaks unveiling of top-secret documents detailing the CIA’s cyber warfare activities reminded me of a shoot I worked on many years ago for the Department of Defense. I was finishing my MFA at USC film school, and the DOD had contracted with the school to produce internal videos, mainly to secure funding from Congress for various programs. Interestingly, Paramount Pictures was the go-between or “studio” on the videos.
For this project in particular, I was hired as cinematographer on a video documenting a DOD program of computer simulation technology. We flew back to DC, and the first stop was a high-tech computing center that ran massive virtual simulations. Now let me say, this was before we had iPhones that could process photorealistic game graphics. Or any graphics at all for that matter, because the iPhone wouldn’t be invented for another 7 years. They had an entire room of Silicon Graphics workstations that probably had the processing power of today’s MacBook Pro. But they were the DOD, so they had the budget to buy the most cutting edge tech available at the time.
In any case, they proceeded to demonstrate a completely photorealistic simulation of downtown Washington DC. It was amazing. I mean, they had simulated everything… Right down to the grass on the mall with brownish paths worn by tourist traffic. We watched in awe as the technician zoomed in and out on various details of the city. They had even gone as far as simulating the interiors of many government buildings in the area, which meant you could walk along the mall, cross a street, and actually walk inside a building… Down hallways, up stairs, into various rooms. Keep in mind, this was long before we had seen anything of the sort. It was mind blowing to say the least.
The purpose of this massive simulation capability (DC was just a demo) was for multiple branches of the military to be able to participate in large-scale, real time battle simulations to prepare for real world missions. For example, ground troops in Germany, drone pilots in Nevada, and warships in the South China Sea could all be in the same battle simulation at the same time. Highly useful for US military readiness.
Then we went to the nerve center of this program and got a glimpse into other DOD activities. Arriving at an anonymous DC beltway office complex we were greeted by a colonel of some sort, who had us sign a document, and then said with a laugh, “You just signed away all your personal liberties. We could lock you up with no due process, and no one would ever know where you are. Follow me!” The first thing we saw was a huge room with hundreds of cubicles receding into the distance, staffed with “the best computer programmers we can hire.” Then he brought us to the command center: a huge, futuristic control room lined with monitors. Apparently the DOD paid Paramount millions of dollars to design it like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. I’m not kidding.
We didn’t have top secret clearance, so the screens were blacked out, but he told us they were engaged in intense “digital information warfare” as he called it. “We’re intercepting everything: bank transfers, foreign government communications, private emails, cell phone conversations… Everything. We’re hacking satellites. You name it. Information is where the next war will be fought.” And obviously he was right.
I’ve thought of that shoot many times over the years. And basically I’ve assumed they’ve been one step ahead all along. So when I hear that the CIA has back doors into iPhones and other supposedly secure tech, my reaction is “of course they do!” From my personal glimpse into our government’s cyber intelligence apparatus, I assume they have access to everything. And I think you should too.
I remember that huge room of cubicles, like the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, receding into the distance, filled with the smartest hackers they could hire. The future they planned for is here, and we’ll see where it leads. In a perfect world, our government uses cyber intelligence in our best interests… But are we in a perfect world? Do I even need to ask? Welcome to the future… A future that has been around longer than we realize.