When I was at university I had a friend whose father was in the Royal Canadian Air Force. She went home for the summer to North Bay Ontario, where her father was based. At some point that long-ago summer, a Kiwi friend and I decided to drive across Canada to pay her a visit.
Crossing Canada’s endless prairie in a Volkswagen Beetle was a tedious business; foot to the floor on flat, dead-straight roads, day after day. The Beetle’s engine eventually blew up outside Brandon Manitoba. We got a tow into town and then had to hang around for two days while the garage found us a reconditioned engine. But eventually we made it to North Bay, a small town in what they call Northern Ontario – although it’s arguably more west than north. Ontario is a huge province. Roughly 10% of Canada’s land mass, it is nearly twice the size of France.
Among other things North Bay is a headquarters for the North American Aerospace Defence Command – otherwise known as NORAD. The command facility at North Bay was then, and may still be, sister to the main US military headquarters complex at Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado. Built into the incredibly hard rock of the Canadian Shield, the Hole at North Bay lies about 60 storeys underground – almost half a kilometre. My friend’s father worked down there, and one August day he took me down the long road on his base that disappears into the earth.
The underground complex at North Bay was supposedly bomb-proof. I was told that it could withstand a direct hit from a nuclear weapon. Deep underground, engineers had blasted a huge cavern out of the ancient rock and built the command centre – a multi-storeyed, H-shaped building that sat on enormous, coil springs. My friend’s father took me inside, and into what he called 'The Blue Room’. In that big room, bathed in blue light, were rows of computer consoles, with an air force technician seated in front of each one. My host took me over to one console and asked the technician to give me a quick demonstration of what the system could do.
The technician called up an overview map of northern Canada, its Arctic coast outlined. Several white blips were travelling slowly across the screen. 'These are all aircraft,' explained the technician. 'Let’s have a look at this one.' He took a small pistol-shaped instrument indicator and touched it on the screen, on top of one of the blips. Another smaller screen, part of the same console, quickly produced a readout: height, speed, airline flight details, destination, ETA, place and time of departure. 'We can tell you what type of fuel that aircraft is burning,' he said. 'We can get a passenger list if we want it.'
There were other rooms in The Hole, said my friend’s father, but he couldn’t take me in any of them. However he gave me one piece of information about the military’s high resolution feeds and the satellite electronics that supplied them. 'If we want to,' he said, 'we can read a newspaper over someone’s shoulder in Red Square'.
That was in the summer of 1969; the year of the first moon landing. Today, for nearly 25 years, we have had the Hubble telescope – upgraded at least four times since its launch. It can send us the most extraordinarily clear and detailed photographs about early galaxy formations that lie unimaginable distances from earth. It is about to be replaced by the Webb Telescope, which will see into even darker corners.
Put these things together with Edward Snowden’s uncomfortable revelations and what have we got? Not too many places to hide. Nor have we had many places to hide for at least one and possibly two generations. Whatever we do, we can probably assume that what we have unleashed will never again be tethered. We had better elect governments that we can trust.