Nobody But Us:The rise and fall of the golden age of signals intelligence

Ben Buchanan looks at American Exceptionalism in the form of the NOBUS approach to signals intelligence in his contribution to the Hoover Institution’s Aegis Paper Series. There is a tension between the needs of nations in the information age to both secure and steal communications. The United States has traditionally met this by exploiting a gap in capabilities that allows the position where NObody But US (NOBUS) can steal secrets.  There are several factors that have allowed America to establish and maintain the kind of gap permissive of the paradigm that there are things that they can do that no other country or group can match or exceed.  By unpacking the NOBUS attitude this paper makes plain the looming problems for signals intelligence and society.  All things must end, including the American golden age of surveillance. The increasing sophistication of other nations and groups, the increase of better forms of encryption, increased scrutiny and the nature of capacities becoming clearer reduce the ability to maintain a capacity gap.

The environment where American cyber isn’t special anymore creates its own issues.  Exceptionally digitally dependent societies have sheltered under the spectre of an exceptionally capable cyber defence organisation.  Without such a capacity, the reliance on technology isn’t reduced, just the ability to counter threats against it.  Capabilities themselves will become more valuable due to their greater scarcity, potentially leading to situations where retaining the operational effectiveness of resources is prioritised over gathering potentially important intelligence.   In any case, it appears that the easy “NOBUS” answer to resolving the tension between cyber offence and defence is not going to be valid for much longer.


The paper openly available, is well written, referenced and is a comfortable 21 pages.