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Decoding Terror

(running time 01:40)

August 22, 2003

NARRATOR: Does this look suspicious to you? A picture like this one over the Internet, or even a tiny fraction of it, could become a hiding place for a terrorist's message. And that greatly complicates the task of code-breakers at the National Security Agency or NSA.

JAMES BAMFORD (Author, Body of Secrets): They're not only trying to pick out and break communications they know are being sent, now they have to look for communications hidden within things like pictures on computer screens.

NARRATOR: The computer language of zeros and ones that makes up each dot of color in an image can be slightly modified to carry a message. And that message itself might be in code. Increasingly, the international e-mails, phone calls, and faxes that the NSA screens are encrypted, or scrambled by complex mathematical formulas.

Encryption isn't new for the NSA. As shown in this re-creation on PBS's "NOVA," during the Cold War, America was able to break some encoded Soviet telegrams—enough to learn that Soviet spies had obtained key secrets of the atom bomb during the Manhattan Project. But a lot has changed since those days.

JAMES BAMFORD (Author, Body of Secrets): There's an enormous difference between the codebreaking when they used pencil and graph paper and today most codebreaking is done with very, very fast, very, very complex computers.

NARRATOR: But for all of its high-tech tools, in this time of international terrorism the NSA has to keep track of moving targets in a deluge of data.

JAMES BAMFORD (Author, Body of Secrets): Now, instead of focusing on targeted communications the NSA has to sift through billions of communications more every year.

NARRATOR: Because the enemy could take on many unexpected identities in this ... "code war." I'm Brad Kloza.

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