Saturday, September 07, 2013

Wait. Why is the NSA eavesdropping on us again?

I just read a fascinating piece in the New York Times about the NSA's long running efforts to weaken or compromise encryption standards and methods, worldwide. The extent of the overreach of the NSA into the private affairs and communications of American citizens is simply astounding. What is this for? Does the NSA value and treasure liberty? Not for the American people it doesn't. Does it value the very Constitution upon which its existence depends? No, it does not. Even one of the original authors of the Patriot Act says that the NSA is completely out of line with their efforts.

Apparently, the NSA has forgotten that they work for us. Oh, wait. Maybe they don't.

The NY Times report shows in significant detail, the challenges the NSA has tried to overcome, to ensure that it has complete access to all communications it can find. They have been working hard to compromise Secure Socket Layer (SSL) encryption to make it easier to decode traffic with SSL websites, just one example among many.

NSA claims regarding their ability to listen to SSL traffic might be believable to the extent that they are able to coerce popular internet properties like Google, and Yahoo to hand over their private keys for SSL encryption. Why would they even bother to ask? They have to ask for the keys because they simply don't have the computing power to brute force attack a 256-bit SSL key. The laws of thermodynamics dictate that to break such a key, the energy output of our sun for decades or a supernova, take your pick, is required.

But there is something else that is almost completely overlooked in the public debate over privacy. Why this massive effort to collect the data? The government plays the terrorist card. Why worry about terrorists? Because US forces are in the Middle East, making trouble for countries that have oil. Why rely upon a source of energy that requires cooperation from the Middle East? I guess they're just looking for something to do.

We could eliminate much of the terrorism problem with a diligent effort to develop alternative sources of energy other than oil or coal. A few years ago, a good friend of mine introduced me to thorium for nuclear power. We came close to using thorium rather than uranium in the 70s, but egos got in the way and we now use uranium.

Thorium power production has many benefits that are explained here in a 5 minute video. There is much more to the story on thorium, but here is the short list of benefits:
  • Thorium is very well distributed worldwide. No single country has a lock on supply.
  • Thorium is 4 times more abundant than uranium and much less expensive.
  • Molten salt thorium reactors are much safer than solid fuel uranium reactors because they don't require high pressure steam systems, they shut down passively during a power interruption and do not require the elaborate safety systems that uranium plants require.
  • Thorium leaves 1% of the waste that uranium power production leaves behind.
  • Nuclear waste from thorium power production is radioactive for maybe a few hundred years rather than a few hundred thousand years of uranium fuel waste and some of the waste products can be used for medical and space exploration purposes.
  • Thorium power plants can be made smaller, more widely distributed and run more efficiently than uranium power plants.
  • A golf ball sized ball of thorium will provide a lifetime supply of power for one person.
  • The supply of thorium on this planet can power the world for at least the next thousand years at current rates of energy use.
With a change to thorium for nuclear power production, we could provide our country with a deep and wide baseline of power production and become completely independent from oil, coal and gas for the vast majority of our power needs. In the context of the terrorist problem, we could change ourselves rather than try to change everyone else to our liking. If the US were truly energy independent, our extensive military presence around the world would not be necessary. Likewise, our extensive intelligence gathering would no longer be necessary either. We could actually cut back wide swaths of the military industrial complex and still be OK.

If every continent had their own thorium power production systems, fights over oil become irrelevant. Coal becomes obsolete. Imagine what would happen to the world if we could harness thorium to power the world. That kind of power can scrub the atmosphere of CO2 down to pre-industrialization levels. It can power high speed levitating transport systems. Thorium is a stepping stone to fusion power plants. This is not a pipe dream as many countries are working on the problem of bringing thorium power production online including: China, Canada, Norway, Germany and the US. China is considered to be the leader in this effort at the moment.

The only things stopping us from using thorium is apparently a lack of experience, and a conventional nuclear industry that sees no easy transition to using thorium without stepping into some healthy competition. The efforts of incumbent power interests to block the funding of thorium research projects are well documented and suggest that a competitive threat from thorium is real.

To end the war on terror, we need to stop using a power source that requires cooperation from the Middle East and other sources hostile to our interests. They don't have to change their attitude, but we can. How's that for a change in perspective?
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