Piercing the veil of cyber secrecy

October 7, 2011

By Jim Urquhart

In my mind I was begging and pleading for the set of 1983’s movie “War Games” and a young Ally Sheedy to be escorting me through my photo assignment. But what I unfortunately found was much less exciting, much more sterile and nowhere near as hot as Ally.

Last week I traveled for Reuters to a top secret cyber security testing lab and watch center operated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security at the Idaho National Laboratory in Idaho Falls, Idaho.

The folks who work there design ways to protect government, corporate and industrial computer networks and keep them safely functioning in the event of malicious attacks by cyber hackers or electronic invaders. Their mission is to keep the nation’s infrastructure humming and private industry’s secrets a secret.

During my three hour road trip from Salt Lake City, Utah, I kept playing in my mind what I might see and what I hoped to be able to see. Deep down I knew what I was really in for: a lot of sitting around waiting and then shooting pictures of things that in no way would be visually appealing. But I had a mission of my own.

Luckily a friend of mine working for another news organization had also been assigned to the “media tour” and we quickly decided to work as a team and come up with ideas on how to make this work and how to negotiate together to actually be allowed to make some good pictures.

Media tours are great in the respect that they give us journalists an opportunity to get behind closed doors and pierce the standard veil of secrecy and share what we find with the public. But the downside is that in many cases the environment is so very controlled and has been sanitized in so many ways that anything really interesting is not available. It was clear that before we arrived that the areas we were seeing had been cleaned of any sensitive or secret material so that we would not see or photograph anything that they did not want the public to see.

This is the challenge that we face. Not all of our assignments are really sexy or that interesting. And maybe that was the point of this trip. When one thinks about the Idaho National Laboratory, usually research on nuclear reactors comes to mind. And when someone thinks about the Department of Homeland Security, many think about a covert force fighting terrorists. Or based upon my own experiences, the DHS has usually represented someone telling me “no” to basic journalistic endeavors that seem protected under the first amendment while giving me the standard, “it’s a matter of national security,” as the only vague reasoning offered for why I cannot shoot pictures.

I guess during my visit the veil was actually lifted and I saw the realities of life inside a top secret government facility. The DHS leases a series of uninteresting office buildings that are filled with beige walls, florescent lights and had the same feel as any office park filled with spaces that could just as easily be credit card call centers or software engineering firms. Most of the cyber security workers sitting at the computers defending the nation from electronic attack would not have grabbed your attention for a moment if you saw them dropping their kids off at a soccer practice or pushing a shopping cart at the local mall.

There were no walls filled from floor to ceiling with maps or live feeds showing realtime surveillance of covert activities taking place across the globe.

The one image that I really thought told the story of the assignment was a doorway that was plastered with restrictions of what was not allowed beyond the threshold. That doorway was the veil, but beyond it, there was no holy grail of mind blowing visuals that said, “this is the mother of all terror watch centers.”

Instead, inside sat just five guys at keyboards, watching a couple of big monitors and not a hint of sweat dripping off their heads or a sense of any state secrets or imminent peril.

I guess that’s it. The DHS operates in such a way that it doesn’t stand out from the rest of the world and probably does not want to. Yes, they work behind closed doors, but I wouldn’t have been able to pick out their offices while driving through an office park anywhere in the world.

And worst of all, there was still no hot young Ally Sheedy anywhere to be seen.

Believe me, I searched for her. She was not to be found.

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