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Surveillance Valley: The Rise of the Military-Digital Complex

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The internet is the most effective weapon the government has ever built.
In this fascinating book, investigative reporter Yasha Levine uncovers the secret origins of the internet, tracing it back to a Pentagon counterinsurgency surveillance project.
A visionary intelligence officer, William Godel, realized that the key to winning the war in Vietnam was not outgunning the enemy, but using new information technology to understand their motives and anticipate their movements. This idea--using computers to spy on people and groups perceived as a threat, both at home and abroad--drove ARPA to develop the internet in the 1960s, and continues to be at the heart of the modern internet we all know and use today. As Levine shows, surveillance wasn't something that suddenly appeared on the internet; it was woven into the fabric of the technology.
But this isn't just a story about the NSA or other domestic programs run by the government. As the book spins forward in time, Levine examines the private surveillance business that powers tech-industry giants like Google, Facebook, and Amazon, revealing how these companies spy on their users for profit, all while doing double duty as military and intelligence contractors. Levine shows that the military and Silicon Valley are effectively inseparable: a military-digital complex that permeates everything connected to the internet, even coopting and weaponizing the antigovernment privacy movement that sprang up in the wake of Edward Snowden.
With deep research, skilled storytelling, and provocative arguments, Surveillance Valley will change the way you think about the news--and the device on which you read it.

384 pages, Hardcover

First published February 6, 2018

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Yasha Levine

8 books44 followers

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 141 reviews
Profile Image for Always Pouting.
568 reviews693 followers
January 4, 2020
Reading this book has kind of left me in a weird space. It goes through the history of the internet and the way in which most of the development has been funded by the government. I mostly already knew that nothing you do on here is truly anonymous but having it confirmed is strange. It also just leaves one feeling kind of helpless since what can one truly do to stop over government from continuing to do this and expand its surveillance capabilities. The book also just reinforced my already held belief that most libertarians are intellectually lazy and pointless to even engage with because they lack the ability to understand power structures in any deep meaningful way. I just kind of am left feeling that mostly people will just accept what's happening and going to continue to happen and that'll be that. Quite demoralizing actually to know that we're all just going to choose to live like this. I think it's been really informative reading this though. At the minimum it's worth knowing what one is getting into when one uses the internet.

Profile Image for Vikas Erraballi.
114 reviews16 followers
March 30, 2018
I’m so concerned about this I post my entire reading list on goodreads
Profile Image for David Wineberg.
Author 2 books685 followers
February 5, 2018
TOR is a federal sting?

TOR is the dark internet, where identity thieves, drug dealers and arms sellers hang out, safely hidden. It is home to Wikileaks and Silk Road. You can purchase anything from a billion stolen e-mail accounts to assassination services there. Turns out TOR is a service designed and built by the CIA, and even though TOR is now a non-profit organization, it is almost entirely funded by annual “donations” from a handful of US government agencies, mostly connected - to the CIA. The NSA sees TOR as “a honeypot”, where all kinds of people they’re after (dealers, jihadists, bombers) gather in one place. They can be tracked and found with little effort. So while the government bemoans the criminals hiding in plain sight on TOR, it also encourages their use of TOR with taxpayer money.

How can this be? It seems that CIA operatives using TOR to hide their online identities were instantly recognizable as CIA operatives because their activity showed they came from TOR. So the user base had to be broadened in order to hide the spies – in plain sight.

Yasha Levine obtained a carton full of documents from the Board of Broadcasting Governors, another offshoot of the CIA, using the Freedom Of Information Act. It is all spelled out clearly and plainly, including updates to the CIA on technical progress at the supposedly independent non-profit. Levine says TOR employees are essentially federal civil servants. This book is a warning that you never know who your friends are, and that everything can be fashioned into a weapon.

Surveillance Valley, The Secret Military History of the Internet is a totally misleading title for this book. It wanders through internet history for two hundred pages, looking at the same developments we all know about. Mostly, it is not about surveillance. And there’s nothing new.

We all know what an open sewer the internet is. And that Silicon Valley receives countless billions from the government for services gladly rendered, be they hosting, profiling or out and out spying. Also nothing new. So the book became a grating read, until quite suddenly and without warning, Levine turned to TOR. The paradox of the US government building, promoting and subsidizing the would-be secret world of the dark net is scary enough. That it is so fragile its managers attacked a university that hacked it, accusing the university of “ethical lapses“ is both laughable and shocking. (It turned out to be cheap and easy.) That anyone thinks they are safe anywhere must forever be out of the question.

Even, or similarly, Signal is a dark net product of the US government. It encrypts communications over the internet, but first requires users to upload their cellphone number and their entire phonebooks. And everyone does. Like lambs to the slaughter. Signal uses Amazon servers, so any intelligence force can watch for the pings and quickly see who is using Signal to keep their conversations secret. Both Signal and TOR are forcefully and famously recommended by Edward Snowden and Julian Assange for their “privacy and safety”. They both must know better. So what does that mean?

The CIA used its ops network to attack Levine for his investigation, in a co-ordinated campaign. He was suddenly accused of all kinds of crime and immorality, and subjected to threats including death to his family. Even Anonymous got after him as a wacko conspiracy theorist. All in an effort to discredit anything he might later publish. But Levine has the government’s own documents. He did the groundwork for the book on a Kickstarter campaign with 500 contributors. And now he is delivering - a real public service – at least in the last third of it.

David Wineberg

Profile Image for Aaron Arnold.
428 reviews130 followers
August 30, 2018
Usually the news stories fretting about how much power tech companies have over our lives that appear every day are framed as the cost of doing business: for example, the reason why Google makes it so hard to turn off location tracking is that they just really want to serve you targeted ads. But while those privacy concerns can and often do boil down to simple greed, one reason why problems of tracking and control are so endemic is that Silicon Valley is intimately connected to the national security state/military-industrial complex, and though most popular histories of computers and the internet emphasize the free-spirited glamour of the hacker culture, one might as well think of the suite of apps on a typical phone as a voluntary counter-insurgency program that we carry out on ourselves. As Levine chronicles, much is made of the power of technology to aid people's fight for freedom, as in coverage of how the organizers of the Arab Spring revolutions used Twitter and Facebook, but less attention is paid to how governments use that same technology to monitor dissidents, control demonstrations, and prevent unrest before it ever occurs.

The connections between tech companies and law enforcement go much deeper than that police departments sometimes also use Gmail. Levine relates many seminal historical events like IBM's collaboration with Nazi Germany, the internet's origins in ARPA, the funding of many supposedly liberatory technologies like Tor by the government, the activities of figures like Peter Thiel who bridge PayPal and Palantir, and the CALEA mandate for telecom companies, showing that for every starry-eyed visionary who saw computers as "bicycles for the mind", in Steve Jobs' phrase, there was another steely-eyed capitalist with no qualms about furnishing governments with whatever they needed to keep tabs on restive populations. It's not that people don't care about privacy, as periodically NSA programs like PRISM become big news for a while, but anyone truly interested in issues like internet freedom has to pay attention to Silicon Valley as well as Washington. It may be that the idea that anyone could use the internet without being watched was always a fantasy, but while Levine doesn't present quite as bleak of a world as, say, Adam Curtis, who he cites a few times, anyone who's seen a few of Curtis' documentaries ("They had a vision of a new world, free from politics... but then something strange happened") will find much that's unhappily familiar here.
41 reviews
December 31, 2020
Tracking down the address of the dude that I talked to once at a party in 2015 who gave me Molly he got on the silk road so I can send him a letter warning him that TOR is actually a US government funded sham so he can watch his back.

Really fucked up stuff in here def annoyed my family this holiday season by spewing facts I got from this book at Xmas dinner
Profile Image for Brian Clegg.
Author 184 books2,506 followers
January 15, 2019
This is a very powerful and insightful book on the relationship between the internet, the big US tech companies and the US military and intelligence services. It's just such a shame that its message is almost ruined by a naive, black hat/white hat polarised approach that totally distorts some of the facts.

Broadly, Yasha Levine makes five claims. The the internet has a military background, that it was set up to to undertake surveillance on the American people, that the big tech companies sell to the military and intelligence services, that the Tor 'dark web' was supported by the US authorities to act as a honey trap and that the internet is used by both business and intelligence as a surveillance tool.

The military background is no surprise to anyone who has read anything about the internet's origins as ARPANET. Levine covers the history in a sometimes summary fashion, making a rather dismissive reference ('upbeat and zany') to the excellent technical history, Where Wizards Stay Up Late. His approach changes markedly, though, with the two claims that the internet was brought into existence to spy on the American people and that it is somehow shocking that Google etc. sell products and services to the military and intelligence services.

What Levine means by the internet being constructed to undertake surveillance on people is that it was used from early on to send surveillance data from one computer to another. As such it was no more being used for surveillance than the mail is being used for surveillance if that data was sent through the post. All communication technology can be used to send information of this kind - is Levine suggesting because of this we shouldn't ever communicate?

As for the fact that Google et al sell products and services to the military, again I don't understand what Levine thinks should be the case? He seems to imply throughout that the military and intelligence services (and early on also the police) are the bad guys and so should not be allowed to make use of the tools developed by tech companies. This isn't helped by the language used. Levine repeatedly says that Google 'integrated' with the military or intelligence where what he is referring to is selling them products. So presumably Microsoft and Apple are integrated with me because I use their products? The whole tenor of this seems linked to a peculiarly American libertarian concept of the government as a bad thing - exactly the same attitude that drives attitudes to gun control.

What is a real shame is that this biassed reporting then makes it harder to take in the really important aspects of the book. Levine raises perfectly reasonable concerns about large tech companies using our data, about the US government using the modern internet for surveillance and and more. He shows us examples of the American government's terrible mishandling of civil unrest and citizen's rights. But it's easy to lose the message because of the lack of balance elsewhere. It's also worrying that he pays little attention to the attempts by countries such as Russia and China to do exactly the same thing - it's as if the US government is the only bad guy so because of the black hat/white hat approach, everyone else is a victim.

By far the most interesting bit is the section on the Tor/dark web business. It's fascinating that this mechanism used by the infamous Silk Road, WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden (who is revealed as a fascinatingly divided character) was funded in considerable part by the American military and intelligence services. Levine makes a good case that Tor was set up as a honey trap which led both dubious individuals and honest whistleblowers to assume they were totally anonymous, but which could be broken quite easily by the intelligence services.

Perhaps the most revealing part of the book is a remark in the epilogue. Levine says 'Today a lot of people still see the Internet as something uniquely special, something uncorrupted by earthly human flaws and sins... This belief embedded deep in our culture, resistant to facts and evidence.' But I've never come across anyone who thought like that and I worked in IT for many years, across the period when the internet became widespread. Perhaps Levine is projecting the culture of his own bubble on the world. I think most people see the internet as an incredibly useful communication tool that comes with costs in terms of giving away information and benefits in the amazing services it provides - which it surely does. I certainly couldn't do my job without it.

To reiterate, this is a genuinely important book. Levine reveals a lot that is surprising and worrying. But it's a shame that he presents that information in the way he does.
Profile Image for Avery.
Author 2 books77 followers
February 9, 2018
To really understand what makes this book interesting it's probably best to get yourself in the right frame of mind, by reading something like Jacques Ellul's The Technological Society or Dmitry Orlov's Shrinking the Technosphere. What is a technology? Our gut instinct as Americans is that technology makes our lives easier. But can it make them harder as well? Has the Internet turned America into a nation of serfs?

With the proper background, you will understand what makes this book so interesting. Yasha Levine discovers many omissions in Internet history -- the true earliest uses of the technology and the way that the public is still being dazzled with "technology to reclaim our privacy" today. We are being trained to eagerly participate in systems of monitoring and control.
Profile Image for darcy.
32 reviews3 followers
February 20, 2023
should be mandatory reading. a lot of information in this book was new to me. for example, i knew that tor was largely controlled by the US government, but i didn't know that it was conceived of and created by the US government. similarly, i knew that signal was not actually as secure as it would have you believe, but i did not know that it was also a government program, or just how insecure it was. two ideas in particular struck me: first, that the impact of having a computer perform what would traditionally be human labour will have the same impact on the economy as slave labour, i.e., forcing the value of human work down and causing a recession. i think this is a nice response to the "luxury automated space communism" stuff that gets tossed around the internet as a response to any criticism of technology. and second, that the solution for mass surveillance can't be to simply purchase different products. a system that's built by a surveillance state and funded through hoarding data is not going to produce tools to give actual privacy. the fact that most of the people advocating for greater privacy protections are libertarians means that so far, all possible "solutions" are just to let the market sort itself out. this necessarily fails when the most beneficial thing for any entrepreneur is to go where the money is, and the money is from a government with a vested interest in breaching citizens privacy.
848 reviews3 followers
September 11, 2018
The author, a former journalist at Pando Daily (a web publication focusing on tech and startups which I used to read), tackles Silicon Valley as providing tools of surveillance in a post-Snowden era. There were some very interesting bits on the history of ARPA, the proto-Internet, and early government involvement in the tech sector; but the second half (focusing on the post-Snowden era) felt very lightweight and a bit sensationalist. But perhaps that's because it's part of the subject area I was already most familiar with.

The first bit or so is focusing on the government's shift towards technological solutions dealing with the Vietnam war and counter-insurgency. Sure, there was a lot of applied technology developed (agent orange defoliants, sensors to be scattered around the jungles), but also entire counterinsurgency systems that were focused on amassing data about potential enemies (who could be anyone). So, when the tail end of Vietnam was in sight, these same techniques were being applied to US civilian society, racked with political unrest due to the civil rights struggle, struggles with communism and so forth (somewhat explicitly spelled out, these same techniques were not applied uniformly towards, say, the John Birch society or right wing groups). This was all completely fascinating and I will try to track down more about this period.

It then spends a lot of time focusing on the 80s and the rise of the various utopian tech visions. Here the author's political views become a bit of a distraction: characters are introduced and dismissed as libertarian, or for coming from what is clearly the 'wrong background.' Often their attitudes would get fleshed out a bit more as the book breezed along, but I started amusing myself by looking for how the initial adjectives and descriptions would foreshadow how they were treated in the book. (The Electronic Frontier Foundation, somewhat the ACLU of tech-centered issues, is dismissed somewhat haughtily as the product of a "couple of millionaires" who participated in a forum. One can only imagine how the author would reflect on any of the other institutions in the book which he does *not* describe the formation of).

Lastly, it spends time on Snowden and the NSA revelations, along with the Tor project. This is the most sensationalist section; while spending a great deal of time talking about Tor (a network system that uses onion routing to make it difficult to track the origin of traffic; Snowden used it to communicate securely but it was also used by the Silk Road to facilitate drug trafficking). The foundation behind the Tor project receives a huge part of its funding from the US government; the author kept repeating the question why the government would fund anonymous Internet traffic when it wants to surveill it.

To be clear, it's a good question; but the author used it as a rhetorical question a *lot*, without seeming to give much credence to the various explanations offered. Revelations about PRISM, a project by which the government was supposed to obtain data about people from the large Internet companies, also felt somewhat glossed over: the author would ask a question or pose an argument, and only provide an alternative explanation several pages later. It made for a more entertaining story , but glossy.
Profile Image for Foppe.
151 reviews46 followers
January 27, 2019
Main takeaways:
Snowden's and "privacy advocates'" selective silence on the role of Silicon Valley in the creation of the modern surveillance state is really problematic, as is their refusal to be clearly discuss the shortcomings of apps like Signal and TOR (which are all funded by the US govt that these "libertarians" supposedly distrust). Although these tools can be used in ways that guarantee both anonymity and privacy, especially Signal seems rather suspect (because of integration with Play and iOS stores, because of the reliance on AWS, and because Android itself is not to be trusted, given that it is developed by Google).

Most renowned privacy 'nuts' / leaders are libertarians who (consequently) refuse to give equal time to the question of corporate privacy invasion / data collection practices, both because they tend to work in the same field, and share a mindset with those who work for SV directly. This even though everyone knows that SV and the "intelligence complex" work hand in glove; even though none of the programs WikiLeaks and the Snowden leaks informed us about (primarily PRISM) have been discontinued. SV has since come under fire because of the fact that the access to their customer data is sold to the highest bidder (even during elections), but they very effectively avoided criticism when it comes to the Snowden etc. revelations, and their role in the creation of the modern surveillance state. (Oddly, many of these libertarians seem to care little about the fact that TOR etc. are govt-funded.)

That said, I had expected to learn a bit more about the ties between Google and FB during their early days (in terms of receiving seed money, MIC-related 'angel' investors). Because based on the title, I would've expected a bit more information about the rise of the 'capitalist' version of 1984 that we are moving towards.
Profile Image for Denise.
302 reviews22 followers
February 17, 2018
I went into this book expecting a quick read, but this isn't that type of book. It starts off with a lengthy history of the internet, beginning at its very infancy as a tool to help census counters collect and sort information, all the way up to the present day. This background was necessary to lay the foundation for the rest of the book, but while interesting, it could be a bit dense at times.

Surveillance Valley picks up speed about halfway through, when the author behind detailing how basically all the big names -Google, etc- are in bed with the government and in fact being paid by them to spy on us. The most shocking part to me was learning that Tor was basically funded and created more or less by the government and not by anti government hackers as I've always been led to believe. Oh - and it's not secure in the slightest.

This is a scary read that will have you thinking twice about the internet, technology, and everything you do on your phone or computer.

Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for providing a copy for review.
Profile Image for Adam  McPhee.
1,238 reviews163 followers
March 24, 2018
computer technology can’t be separated from the culture in which it is developed and used.

The first part is a history of the Internet. It reminded me of reading Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal in high school: on the one hand, constantly dismayed by the appalling practices used to create and sustain an industry, but on the other hand, I was also left with the feeling of wanting a burger (or in this case to reminisce about my early experiences with the Internet and to to celebrate the technological achievements, even though they're being used to track dissidents and kill public services). Perhaps it's a testament to all of the pro-Internet propaganda I've consumed. Not that the author is anti-Internet, rather, he thinks we're framing the debate wrong. For example, he points out that the surveillance/privacy debate is completely skewed with 'privacy' somehow always being a good thing, except that it's letting corporations and government bodies run wild without oversight.

The second part of the book focuses more narrowly on this surveillance/privacy question, looking at the Tor Project in fine detail. Always found myself reminiscing here, for the heyday of Levine's reporting for the NSFW Corp and Pando websites. And he's completely vindicated. Well, he was right at the time too, but the insane amount of vitriol sent his way made it feel less triumphant. He completely exposes Tor as a honeypot, a cover for spies (something I'd had trouble conceptualizing when I'd read about it earlier, Levine lays out the details more clearly here), and not the mathematically infallible tool it's booster (once?) claimed it was.

The whole book is incredibly well-researched (something I think Levine, and also his sometimes writing partner Mark Ames, don't get enough credit for).

One thing I'm left curious about: is Tor still revered among the Silicon Valley elite the way it was in '13/'14? I suppose it's a moot question though, because after reading Surveillance Valley it's hard to see how anyone could defend it.

Profile Image for Salam Ch.
115 reviews45 followers
February 27, 2019
An interesting and scary book !!!!
I was so surprised to know that the idea of internet started as military project since Vietnam war and later was shared with the public not the way around .
Also that TOR the dark web was started by government agencies to stay undercover !!!!
There is a lot of info in this book about how internet came to be and how google and other platforms are using and sharing data for advertising companies, goverment, military and intelligent agencies.
Profile Image for Andrew Fairweather.
450 reviews81 followers
May 6, 2021
The first half of the book (essentially a history of the military origins of the internet) will come as no surprise to most who have heretofore expressed any interest in understanding the origins of the internet. Nevertheless, it is nice to see it all in one place, and it was nicer still to fill in the broader picture with the details that Levine provides. Here’s a summary for you in case you’re not already familiar—there was never an internet that *wasn’t* mixed up with the military, either through personnel, funding, or (frequently) both. Levine takes great care to emphasize that ARPANET came into being primarily as a counter-insurgency tool. The quicker we accept all this and move on from the crazy idea that some sort of hero-squad of hackers will somehow create an “alternative internet,” the better.

The second half contains Levine’s more original research (and sharper opinions). His investigation into the privacy movement which advocated the use of programs like Tor and Signal had me turning pages like nothing else. Levine is bold enough to complicate the legacy of Edward Snowden and the culture surrounding other lone wolf types, citing the fact that the anti-government libertarianism of these actors is often a distraction from what might be the *real* solution to the quagmire of surveillance capitalism.

It’s pretty twisted stuff—these programs promoted by the privacy movement are bankrolled by the pentagon, the CIA, &c… Why would the military and intelligence agencies fund Tor and Signal? Well, two reasons. One, it’s a sort of “Radio Free Europe” way of broadcasting alternative news sources to countries that don’t play ball with the United States, such as China. This becomes crucial to America’s propaganda project since countries like China have engaged in censorship campaigns to block off access to certain sites. Tor allows for the promulgation of pro-United States messages in these countries. Second, Tor and Signal allow of the agents of these agencies to act undetected as well. It works both ways, you see! At its most benign, using Tor and Signal and other privacy tools are just a panacea to make the average, technically ignorant user feel better about their choices—but the idea that the average person could “carve out cyber islands free of government control” was always just a dream…

Of course, the battle is a cultural one as well, and fits comfortably in American libertarian anti-government sentiment. The private companies, giants like Google and Facebook, would rather you worried about government surveillance because it makes them seem like the good guys in comparison. The truth is that the difference between the two (and their malignant import) are extremely murky. The image of Google as some sort of advocate for an anonymous and free usership is absurd when you consider the fact that without the revenue made through selling surveillance data, the company simply couldn’t exist.

Levine argues that for far too long we have been pretending that the internet is a-cultural and a-political—that, as a result, political solutions are uncalled for in rectifying the mess we’re in. Levine insists that not all surveillance is bad, and that we’ll need it to keep tabs on the companies themselves in order to put the internet in the service of the user, that is, democratize it. I am in broad agreement with this.

A must-read for anyone needing an introduction or a summary of the challenges we face.
Profile Image for Janet.
1,544 reviews14 followers
March 5, 2018
Wow, Surveillance Valley is one of those books I had to read and digest a little at a time. Yasha Levine has certainly piqued my interest and the desire to read more about the subject. I wished that I had a reading buddy to discuss and debate the information contained in this book. It would be an excellent selection for a book discussion group, simply based on my own wishes. The book is organized well and the references are explained in a conversational manner. My paranoia has definitely been triggered by this riveting book.
Profile Image for Willy Marz Thiessam.
150 reviews1 follower
October 17, 2017
Yasha Levine has produced a fairly useful agglomeration of sources in this exposition about the Internet and its role in the command and control strategy of the US military and security services. The basic argument is that the situation has a history and its becoming more than ever, encroaching on all freedoms, the instrument for the government to control what we do.

Its a very useful read and I hope everyone who has at least a passing interest in the surveillance of the Internet has a chance to read it.

The draw backs are perhaps predictable. It does not take into account that the US government itself is incredibly fractured. There are 28 different secret service organizations, and even New York City has information gathering overseas. The disjointed nature of US foreign policy has also been a factor that does not create control as much as sows anarchy. The Internet and its surveillance is no different than any other aspect of US government control. What we know is that the hype over the internet has created financial disasters for business and nightmares of saturation for intelligence services. In other words giving this nightmare vision of the apocalypse a ho hum and a shrug of the shoulders is probably a good measure to keep yourself sane after reading the book.

The details in the is book is exceptional and I applaud Levine's research. Much of this material of course is not new and can be found mostly by anyone with access to Google. Levine though in his selections and style creates a value to the work that I think makes it very much worth reading.

Profile Image for Max.
Author 5 books69 followers
November 2, 2020
us government made the internet for surveillance/intel organization purposes :( us government made tor for surveillance/intel organization purposes :( Cool book, depressing but not as hopeless as lots of reviews are indicating- he’s clear at the end that we need the legislative solutions to privacy that Silicon Valley opposes. Also “the internet is a surveillance tool” applies to...... the internet, not all of society. Plenty of spheres of life are a lot harder to penetrate- we should grow the parts of our lives that can’t be watched and monetized so easily
179 reviews2 followers
May 13, 2021
There is certainly some valuable research here, and this history deserves to be known. But this book is also plagued by a lot of unwarranted generalizations and sloppy thinking.
Profile Image for josie.
135 reviews32 followers
January 20, 2022
3.5; kinda goes off the rails in the last 1/4 but interesting, gloomy, i learned a lot, etc. would've been better as a more focused monograph instead of trying to do the whole military-internet-industrial-complex from start to finish; i'd read a whole book on just the first few chapters and the early deployment of the internet in CIA coups. 🙃 love typing this out from the internet it makes me feel great
Profile Image for Noah Skocilich.
111 reviews6 followers
March 27, 2018
Great investigative journalism about something that matters.

Told elegantly and intelligently.

This is one of those books like Shock Doctrine or Democracy in Chains that has reshaped and deeply clarified my understanding of current events.
Profile Image for Kars.
347 reviews42 followers
May 23, 2018
A tour the force. Levine offers a radically alternative history of the internet. Like most people I bought into the narrative of its inherently liberatory nature for quite some time. My career would not exist if it wasn't for the internet, so like many of my peers I am severely biased towards it. But for a while now, a sense of unease with this perspective had been growing. And this book was the final nail in the coffin for me. The internet was conceived as a weapon of social control and surveillance, by governments with aid from the private sector. There is nothing inherently good about it. Levine convincingly shows how flawed the internet freedom movement is. The only way we can make this technology work for the many, is by increasing the democratic control over it. It is no mean feat, but at least now we have our eye on the ball.
Profile Image for Mal Warwick.
Author 28 books391 followers
July 11, 2018
The secret military history of the Internet comes to light in a powerful new book.

It's well known that the Internet was birthed by the Pentagon. Originally called the ARPANET, the name reflected its origin in the military's Advanced Research Projects Agency created late in the Eisenhower Administration. What is much less well known is that its principal purpose was not to serve as a communications network that could survive a nuclear attack (although that's routinely stated as the reason for developing it). In reality, the ARPANET was an offshoot of the US counterinsurgency program in Vietnam in the 1960s. And its central purpose was to facilitate that program and enable domestic surveillance efforts undertaken by the US Army and the CIA during the Vietnam War. These are among the shocking revelations that investigative journalist Yasha Levine brings to light in Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet. As Levine notes, "the Internet was hardwired to be a surveillance tool from the start . . . [It] was developed as a weapon and remains a weapon today."

Over the years, I've read a great deal about the history of the Internet, the computer industry, and the agency now called DARPA (for Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). I consider myself reasonably well-informed for someone who isn't directly involved in the industry. Yet I often found my eyes widening in surprise as I read Levine's remarkable story:

I was disappointed to learn from Levine's book how deeply involved in military research were virtually all the legendary figures credited with key advances in the evolution of the computer industry and the Internet—and how robust the industry's links to the Pentagon remain to this day. Douglas Engelbart, for example, the man who created the computer mouse, was working on an ARPA contract. So were Robert Kahn and Vint Cerf, the men who developed the vital TCP/IP protocol that makes the Internet work. Even Stewart Brand, an early evangelist for the computer industry, who made it all seem hip and cool, had lived on the military's dime in the 1960s. All these men were, in fact, working either for ARPA itself or for the Stanford Research Institute (now SRI), which was heavily funded by the US military.

"For many Internet companies, including Google and Facebook, surveillance is the business model. It is the base on which their corporate and economic power rests." These statements should be obvious, since we all know that these firms vacuum up information indiscriminately, but Edward Snowden's revelations have fastened our attention on the NSA. In fact, the NSA couldn't operate as it does without the help of Google, Facebook, and their peers.

I was shocked to discover that the online network Tor was created and funded by the US intelligence community. Tor, part of the dark web, is used by drug traffickers, arms dealers, and purveyors of child pornography to escape detection by law enforcement. Admittedly, some of these criminals have been rounded up as a result, but thousands of others continue to operate with impunity on Tor.
Secret military history: echoes of the Holocaust

In the Epilogue to Surveillance Valley, Levine reports on a trip to the former Nazi death camp at Mauthausen in Austria. He explains that the meticulous record-keeping for which Hitler's regime was notorious was made possible by using IBM machines. "Nazi Germany employed the same technology to systematically carry out the Holocaust" as the US government and the Internet giants are using today. "Mauthausen is a powerful reminder of how computer technology can't be separated from the culture in which is it developed and used." Given the current state of American society, and the country's leadership in Washington, this point is sobering indeed.

This book has been treated unevenly by reviewers. Publisher's Weekly panned it. Kirkus Review was somewhat kinder, terming it "a sometimes-overwrought but provocative history of the internet-equipped security state." The New Yorker was far happier with the effort: Levine's "tone is often contentious, but, amid increasing dismay about technology’s influence on contemporary life, such forceful questioning is salutary." To that I say, Amen.

Yasha Levine is a Russian-American investigative journalist who was born in the Soviet Union. Surveillance Valley is based on "three years of investigative work, interviews, travel across two continents, and countless hours of correlating and researching historical and declassified records." It shows.
Profile Image for Ralph Cooper.
28 reviews
March 18, 2018
Interested in the timeline of the Internet development. Good review of key milestones and some of the players I'd not known about.
Profile Image for Alex.
529 reviews28 followers
March 7, 2018
Not perfect, but entertainingly told with its focus on "characters" involved in the history of certain internet developments, and I appreciated Levine's informed contrarianism, particularly in the latter chapters. Worth reading even though some of the historical content regarding the military origins of the internet is fairly well-trodden ground at this point.
Profile Image for John.
110 reviews2 followers
March 2, 2018
Read this book! A well written, researched and enjoyable read that will reset any preconceived notions about the internet and privacy.
2 reviews
October 22, 2017
Originally named ARPANET in the 1960s by the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), the network was designed to be a communication tool able to withstand a nuclear attack. With the help from the National Science Foundation (NSF), ARPANET expanded in the early 1980s for university research - which then grew into the modern-day Internet. Should the NSA documents Edward Snowden leaked have been a surprise? Do we need to expect companies like Facebook and Google to collect, monetize, and share our private information with advertisers and law enforcement? While the public debates whether the Internet should be used as a military tool or consumer product, Surveillance Valley eloquently outlines the history of the Internet and examines Yasha Levine’s theory: the Internet was always designed to be a surveillance network to collect, analyze, and share real-time information to protect the republic. This book will have you raise questions on the worldwide web our society has grown to depend on.
24 reviews
March 12, 2018
It is not by any means a flawless books. The author is biased and often lacks relevant technical knowledge. However you will find information here thoroughly missed in hagiographies. There is a lot of skeletons in closets that were carefully forgotten and exposed by Yasha through journalistic work (these days often replaced by googling it up) and careful study of FOIA documents.

Very recommended.
Profile Image for Ryan Maynard.
26 reviews2 followers
October 2, 2018
If you tend to follow security and surveillance related news, you won't read of anything in this book that hasn't been mentioned in recent years regarding leaks of gov agencies. It heavily discusses on the history and relationship of technological advancement and the military. A better read on that topic is Accessory to War by Neil Tyson. It also explores some of the ethical questions society has been forced to ponder in recent years.
315 reviews8 followers
January 16, 2021
Competently written if not always perfectly edited, Levine provides crucial background to cynical "privacy" businesses like Tor and Signal after thoroughly probing the hentai-esque intersections between Sili Valley and US intelligence agencies. Similar to Hudson's And Forgive Them Their Debts..., this book tells an essential story but unfortunately sticks to identifying personalities and technical details rather than ruminating on structural causes and implications.
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