Tag Archives: security

Edward Snowden: The Untold Story | Threat Level | WIRED

Edward Snowden: The Untold Story | Threat Level | WIRED.

The message arrives on my “clean machine,” a MacBook Air loaded only with a sophisticated encryption package. “Change in plans,” my contact says. “Be in the lobby of the Hotel ______ by 1 pm. Bring a book and wait for ES to find you.”

[…]

He is a uniquely postmodern breed of whistle-blower. Physically, very few people have seen him since he disappeared into Moscow’s airport complex last June. But he has nevertheless maintained a presence on the world stage—not only as a man without a country but as a man without a body. When being interviewed at the South by Southwest conference or receiving humanitarian awards, his disembodied image smiles down from jumbotron screens. For an interview at the TED conference in March, he went a step further—a small screen bearing a live image of his face was placed on two leg-like poles attached vertically to remotely controlled wheels, giving him the ability to “walk” around the event, talk to people, and even pose for selfies with them. The spectacle suggests a sort of Big Brother in reverse: Orwell’s Winston Smith, the low-ranking party functionary, suddenly dominating telescreens throughout Oceania with messages promoting encryption and denouncing encroachments on privacy.

[…]

I read a recent Washington Post report. The story, by Greg Miller, recounts daily meetings with senior officials from the FBI, CIA, and State Department, all desperately trying to come up with ways to capture Snowden. One official told Miller: “We were hoping he was going to be stupid enough to get on some kind of airplane, and then have an ally say: ‘You’re in our airspace. Land.’ ” He wasn’t. And since he disappeared into Russia, the US seems to have lost all trace of him.

I do my best to avoid being followed as I head to the designated hotel for the interview, one that is a bit out of the way and attracts few Western visitors. I take a seat in the lobby facing the front door and open the book I was instructed to bring. Just past one, Snowden walks by, dressed in dark jeans and a brown sport coat and carrying a large black backpack over his right shoulder. He doesn’t see me until I stand up and walk beside him. “Where were you?” he asks. “I missed you.” I point to my seat. “And you were with the CIA?” I tease. He laughs.

[…]

He has been in Russia for more than a year now. He shops at a local grocery store where no one recognizes him, and he has picked up some of the language. He has learned to live modestly in an expensive city that is cleaner than New York and more sophisticated than Washington. In August, Snowden’s temporary asylum was set to expire. (On August 7, the government announced that he’d been granted a permit allowing him to stay three more years.)

[…]

Snowden is careful about what’s known in the intelligence world as operational security. As we sit down, he removes the battery from his cell phone. I left my iPhone back at my hotel. Snowden’s handlers repeatedly warned me that, even switched off, a cell phone can easily be turned into an NSA microphone. Knowledge of the agency’s tricks is one of the ways that Snowden has managed to stay free. Another is by avoiding areas frequented by Americans and other Westerners. Nevertheless, when he’s out in public at, say, a computer store, Russians occasionally recognize him. “Shh,” Snowden tells them, smiling, putting a finger to his lips.

[…]

Snowden still holds out hope that he will someday be allowed to return to the US. “I told the government I’d volunteer for prison, as long as it served the right purpose,” he says. “I care more about the country than what happens to me. But we can’t allow the law to become a political weapon or agree to scare people away from standing up for their rights, no matter how good the deal. I’m not going to be part of that.”

Meanwhile, Snowden will continue to haunt the US, the unpredictable impact of his actions resonating at home and around the world. The documents themselves, however, are out of his control. Snowden no longer has access to them; he says he didn’t bring them with him to Russia. Copies are now in the hands of three groups: First Look Media, set up by journalist Glenn Greenwald and American documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, the two original recipients of the documents; The Guardian newspaper, which also received copies before the British government pressured it into transferring physical custody (but not ownership) to The New York Times; and Barton Gellman, a writer for The Washington Post. It’s highly unlikely that the current custodians will ever return the documents to the NSA.

That has left US officials in something like a state of impotent expectation, waiting for the next round of revelations, the next diplomatic upheaval, a fresh dose of humiliation. Snowden tells me it doesn’t have to be like this. He says that he actually intended the government to have a good idea about what exactly he stole. Before he made off with the documents, he tried to leave a trail of digital bread crumbs so investigators could determine which documents he copied and took and which he just “touched.” That way, he hoped, the agency would see that his motive was whistle-blowing and not spying for a foreign government. It would also give the government time to prepare for leaks in the future, allowing it to change code words, revise operational plans, and take other steps to mitigate damage. But he believes the NSA’s audit missed those clues and simply reported the total number of documents he touched—1.7 million. (Snowden says he actually took far fewer.) “I figured they would have a hard time,” he says. “I didn’t figure they would be completely incapable.”

[…]

Snowden speculates that the government fears that the documents contain material that’s deeply damaging—secrets the custodians have yet to find. “I think they think there’s a smoking gun in there that would be the death of them all politically,” Snowden says. “The fact that the government’s investigation failed—that they don’t know what was taken and that they keep throwing out these ridiculous huge numbers—implies to me that somewhere in their damage assessment they must have seen something that was like, ‘Holy shit.’ And they think it’s still out there.”

Yet it is very likely that no one knows precisely what is in the mammoth haul of documents—not the NSA, not the custodians, not even Snowden himself. He would not say exactly how he gathered them, but others in the intelligence community have speculated that he simply used a web crawler, a program that can search for and copy all documents containing particular keywords or combinations of keywords. This could account for many of the documents that simply list highly technical and nearly unintelligible signal parameters and other statistics.

And there’s another prospect that further complicates matters: Some of the revelations attributed to Snowden may not in fact have come from him but from another leaker spilling secrets under Snowden’s name. Snowden himself adamantly refuses to address this possibility on the record. But independent of my visit to Snowden, I was given unrestricted access to his cache of documents in various locations. And going through this archive using a sophisticated digital search tool, I could not find some of the documents that have made their way into public view, leading me to conclude that there must be a second leaker somewhere. I’m not alone in reaching that conclusion. Both Greenwald and security expert Bruce Schneier—who have had extensive access to the cache—have publicly stated that they believe another whistle-blower is releasing secret documents to the media.

[…]

Some have even raised doubts about whether the infamous revelation that the NSA was tapping German chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone, long attributed to Snowden, came from his trough. At the time of that revelation, Der Spiegel simply attributed the information to Snowden and other unnamed sources. If other leakers exist within the NSA, it would be more than another nightmare for the agency—it would underscore its inability to control its own information and might indicate that Snowden’s rogue protest of government overreach has inspired others within the intelligence community. “They still haven’t fixed their problems,” Snowden says. “They still have negligent auditing, they still have things going for a walk, and they have no idea where they’re coming from and they have no idea where they’re going. And if that’s the case, how can we as the public trust the NSA with all of our information, with all of our private records, the permanent record of our lives?”

[…]

Snowden keeps close tabs on his evolving public profile, but he has been resistant to talking about himself. In part, this is because of his natural shyness and his reluctance about “dragging family into it and getting a biography.” He says he worries that sharing personal details will make him look narcissistic and arrogant. But mostly he’s concerned that he may inadvertently detract from the cause he has risked his life to promote. “I’m an engineer, not a politician,” he says. “I don’t want the stage. I’m terrified of giving these talking heads some distraction, some excuse to jeopardize, smear, and delegitimize a very important movement.”

[…]

While in Geneva, Snowden says, he met many spies who were deeply opposed to the war in Iraq and US policies in the Middle East. “The CIA case officers were all going, what the hell are we doing?” Because of his job maintaining computer systems and network operations, he had more access than ever to information about the conduct of the war. What he learned troubled him deeply. “This was the Bush period, when the war on terror had gotten really dark,” he says. “We were torturing people; we had warrantless wiretapping.”

He began to consider becoming a whistle-blower, but with Obama about to be elected, he held off. “I think even Obama’s critics were impressed and optimistic about the values that he represented,” he says. “He said that we’re not going to sacrifice our rights. We’re not going to change who we are just to catch some small percentage more terrorists.” But Snowden grew disappointed as, in his view, Obama didn’t follow through on his lofty rhetoric. “Not only did they not fulfill those promises, but they entirely repudiated them,” he says. “They went in the other direction. What does that mean for a society, for a democracy, when the people that you elect on the basis of promises can basically suborn the will of the electorate?”

[…]

Snowden’s disenchantment would only grow. It was bad enough when spies were getting bankers drunk to recruit them; now he was learning about targeted killings and mass surveillance, all piped into monitors at the NSA facilities around the world. Snowden would watch as military and CIA drones silently turned people into body parts. And he would also begin to appreciate the enormous scope of the NSA’s surveillance capabilities, an ability to map the movement of everyone in a city by monitoring their MAC address, a unique identifier emitted by every cell phone, computer, and other electronic device.

[…]

Snowden adjusts his glasses; one of the nose pads is missing, making them slip occasionally. He seems lost in thought, looking back to the moment of decision, the point of no return. The time when, thumb drive in hand, aware of the enormous potential consequences, he secretly went to work. “If the government will not represent our interests,” he says, his face serious, his words slow, “then the public will champion its own interests. And whistle-blowing provides a traditional means to do so.”

[…]

Snowden landed a job as an infrastructure analyst with another giant NSA contractor, Booz Allen. The role gave him rare dual-hat authority covering both domestic and foreign intercept capabilities—allowing him to trace domestic cyberattacks back to their country of origin. In his new job, Snowden became immersed in the highly secret world of planting malware into systems around the world and stealing gigabytes of foreign secrets. At the same time, he was also able to confirm, he says, that vast amounts of US communications “were being intercepted and stored without a warrant, without any requirement for criminal suspicion, probable cause, or individual designation.” He gathered that evidence and secreted it safely away.

[…]

One day an intelligence officer told him that TAO—a division of NSA hackers—had attempted in 2012 to remotely install an exploit in one of the core routers at a major Internet service provider in Syria, which was in the midst of a prolonged civil war. This would have given the NSA access to email and other Internet traffic from much of the country. But something went wrong, and the router was bricked instead—rendered totally inoperable. The failure of this router caused Syria to suddenly lose all connection to the Internet—although the public didn’t know that the US government was responsible. (This is the first time the claim has been revealed.)

[…]

“It’s no secret that we hack China very aggressively,” he says. “But we’ve crossed lines. We’re hacking universities and hospitals and wholly civilian infrastructure rather than actual government targets and military targets. And that’s a real concern.”

The last straw for Snowden was a secret program he discovered while getting up to speed on the capabilities of the NSA’s enormous and highly secret data storage facility in Bluffdale, Utah. Potentially capable of holding upwards of a yottabyte of data, some 500 quintillion pages of text, the 1 million-square-foot building is known within the NSA as the Mission Data Repository. (According to Snowden, the original name was Massive Data Repository, but it was changed after some staffers thought it sounded too creepy—and accurate.) Billions of phone calls, faxes, emails, computer-to-computer data transfers, and text messages from around the world flow through the MDR every hour. Some flow right through, some are kept briefly, and some are held forever.

The massive surveillance effort was bad enough, but Snowden was even more disturbed to discover a new, Strangelovian cyberwarfare program in the works, codenamed MonsterMind. The program, disclosed here for the first time, would automate the process of hunting for the beginnings of a foreign cyberattack. Software would constantly be on the lookout for traffic patterns indicating known or suspected attacks. When it detected an attack, MonsterMind would automatically block it from entering the country—a “kill” in cyber terminology.

Programs like this had existed for decades, but MonsterMind software would add a unique new capability: Instead of simply detecting and killing the malware at the point of entry, MonsterMind would automatically fire back, with no human involvement. That’s a problem, Snowden says, because the initial attacks are often routed through computers in innocent third countries. “These attacks can be spoofed,” he says. “You could have someone sitting in China, for example, making it appear that one of these attacks is originating in Russia. And then we end up shooting back at a Russian hospital. What happens next?”

In addition to the possibility of accidentally starting a war, Snowden views MonsterMind as the ultimate threat to privacy because, in order for the system to work, the NSA first would have to secretly get access to virtually all private communications coming in from overseas to people in the US. “The argument is that the only way we can identify these malicious traffic flows and respond to them is if we’re analyzing all traffic flows,” he says. “And if we’re analyzing all traffic flows, that means we have to be intercepting all traffic flows. That means violating the Fourth Amendment, seizing private communications without a warrant, without probable cause or even a suspicion of wrongdoing. For everyone, all the time.”

[…]

Given the NSA’s new data storage mausoleum in Bluffdale, its potential to start an accidental war, and the charge to conduct surveillance on all incoming communications, Snowden believed he had no choice but to take his thumb drives and tell the world what he knew. The only question was when.

On March 13, 2013, sitting at his desk in the “tunnel” surrounded by computer screens, Snowden read a news story that convinced him that the time had come to act. It was an account of director of national intelligence James Clapper telling a Senate committee that the NSA does “not wittingly” collect information on millions of Americans. “I think I was reading it in the paper the next day, talking to coworkers, saying, can you believe this shit?”

Snowden and his colleagues had discussed the routine deception around the breadth of the NSA’s spying many times, so it wasn’t surprising to him when they had little reaction to Clapper’s testimony. “It was more of just acceptance,” he says, calling it “the banality of evil”—a reference to Hannah Arendt’s study of bureaucrats in Nazi Germany.

“It’s like the boiling frog,” Snowden tells me. “You get exposed to a little bit of evil, a little bit of rule-breaking, a little bit of dishonesty, a little bit of deceptiveness, a little bit of disservice to the public interest, and you can brush it off, you can come to justify it. But if you do that, it creates a slippery slope that just increases over time, and by the time you’ve been in 15 years, 20 years, 25 years, you’ve seen it all and it doesn’t shock you. And so you see it as normal. And that’s the problem, that’s what the Clapper event was all about. He saw deceiving the American people as what he does, as his job, as something completely ordinary. And he was right that he wouldn’t be punished for it, because he was revealed as having lied under oath and he didn’t even get a slap on the wrist for it. It says a lot about the system and a lot about our leaders.” Snowden decided it was time to hop out of the water before he too was boiled alive.

At the same time, he knew there would be dire consequences. “It’s really hard to take that step—not only do I believe in something, I believe in it enough that I’m willing to set my own life on fire and burn it to the ground.”

But he felt that he had no choice. Two months later he boarded a flight to Hong Kong with a pocket full of thumb drives.

[…]

rather than the Russian secret police, it’s his old employers, the CIA and the NSA, that Snowden most fears. “If somebody’s really watching me, they’ve got a team of guys whose job is just to hack me,” he says. “I don’t think they’ve geolocated me, but they almost certainly monitor who I’m talking to online. Even if they don’t know what you’re saying, because it’s encrypted, they can still get a lot from who you’re talking to and when you’re talking to them.”

More than anything, Snowden fears a blunder that will destroy all the progress toward reforms for which he has sacrificed so much. “I’m not self-destructive. I don’t want to self-immolate and erase myself from the pages of history. But if we don’t take chances, we can’t win,” he says. And so he takes great pains to stay one step ahead of his presumed pursuers—he switches computers and email accounts constantly. Nevertheless, he knows he’s liable to be compromised eventually: “I’m going to slip up and they’re going to hack me. It’s going to happen.”

Indeed, some of his fellow travelers have already committed some egregious mistakes. Last year, Greenwald found himself unable to open the encryption on a large trove of secrets from GCHQ—the British counterpart of the NSA—that Snowden had passed to him. So he sent his longtime partner, David Miranda, from their home in Rio to Berlin to get another set from Poitras. But in making the arrangements, The Guardian booked a transfer through London. Tipped off, probably as a result of GCHQ surveillance, British authorities detained Miranda as soon as he arrived and questioned him for nine hours. In addition, an external hard drive containing 60 gigabits of data—about 58,000 pages of documents—was seized. Although the documents had been encrypted using a sophisticated program known as True Crypt, the British authorities discovered a paper of Miranda’s with the password for one of the files, and they were able to decrypt about 75 pages. (Greenwald has still not gained access to the complete GCHQ documents.)

Another concern for Snowden is what he calls NSA fatigue—the public becoming numb to disclosures of mass surveillance, just as it becomes inured to news of battle deaths during a war. “One death is a tragedy, and a million is a statistic,” he says, mordantly quoting Stalin. “Just as the violation of Angela Merkel’s rights is a massive scandal and the violation of 80 million Germans is a nonstory.”

Nor is he optimistic that the next election will bring any meaningful reform. In the end, Snowden thinks we should put our faith in technology—not politicians. “We have the means and we have the technology to end mass surveillance without any legislative action at all, without any policy changes.” The answer, he says, is robust encryption. “By basically adopting changes like making encryption a universal standard—where all communications are encrypted by default—we can end mass surveillance not just in the United States but around the world.”

[…]

“The question for us is not what new story will come out next. The question is, what are we going to do about it?”

Aggregate – Risk Design

Aggregate – Risk Design.

Back the Bid. Leap for London. Make Britain Proud. Emblazoned across photomontages of oversized athletes jumping over, diving off, and shooting for architectural landmarks old and new, these slogans appeared in 2004 on posters encouraging Londoners to support the city’s bid to host the 2012 Olympic Games. Featured twice in the series of six posters—along with Buckingham Palace, Nelson’s Column, the Tower Bridge, the London Eye, and the Thames Barrier—was 30 St Mary Axe, the office tower known colloquially as the Gherkin for its resemblance to a pickle, or as the Swiss Re building, after the Zurich-based reinsurance company that commissioned the building and remains its major tenant.

One poster shows the upper half of the Gherkin standing alone against a clear sky. A gymnast vaults above the building, using its smoothly rounded apex as a pommel. The contrasting blues of his uniform echo those of the building’s glazing, while the higher of his legs aligns with one of the spirals that animate the otherwise crisp and symmetrical tower. Constructing affinities between body and building even as it captured attention through a dramatic juxtaposition of scales, the poster associated British athleticism and architecture as complementary manifestations of daring and skill. In representing Games-hosting as a leap akin to vaulting over the Gherkin, it also imagined public investment as the running of a risk. By figuring the building’s dynamic equipoise as support for the gymnast’s virtuosity, it enlisted the Gherkin as evidence that London possessed the expertise and daring to handle that risk—to manage the complex investments and construction projects in infrastructure, architecture, and landscape needed to host an Olympic games.

[…]

the Gherkin has been compared to many objects of similar shape, including a pine cone, a bullet, a stubby cigar, a pickle, and a penis.

[…]

Upon its completion in 2004, this unusual yet centrally symmetrical form created a distinctive and consistent silhouette widely visible across London. Reproduced in countless advertisements, drawings, photographs, and postcards as well as in films, television shows, video games, and other media, the Gherkin has become one of the world’s newest urban icons, a junior partner to the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State Building, and the World Trade Center. The building has served as a powerful branding instrument for Swiss Re; for British design expertise, in particular that of the building’s architects, Foster + Partners; and for the London of Tony Blair’s New Labour, Ken Livingstone’s mayoralty, and the 2012 Olympics.1

[…]

Like any icon, the building carries many meanings. As the Back the Bid poster suggests, prominent among these are risk and its management. Most generally, “risk” denotes the effect of uncertainty on objectives. More commonly, the term describes the quantification of uncertainty through the probabilistic calculation of likelihood for any kind of negative outcome. Risk was once a technical concept specific to maritime insurance. In the coffee houses and early exchanges of London’s nascent financial district it described the commodity that insurers sold and shippers bought to manage the economic danger posed by the uncertain conditions of travel by sea. As capitalism, with its dynamic of continual change, introduced ever more uncertainty into daily life ashore, over the course of the 19th century risk became part of broader Anglo-American economy and culture. Once located exclusively in nature, risk came to be recognized as a dimension of human conduct and society. Assuming risks became part of the freedom and self-mastery that characterizes modern liberal subjectivity.3

The expanding corporate economy rationalized contingency by generating new financial instruments of risk management: savings accounts; markets in bonds, futures, and stocks; insurance policies. In the 20th century, advanced industrial nations socialized certain kinds of risk through regulation, state health coverage, and social insurance. In constituting the nation as a risk community, these measures diminished the prevalence of risk as a framework for individual action. Since the 1970s, however, these large-scale risk communities have weakened and responsibility for risk management has increasingly returned to individuals and corporations. Sociologists and political theorists have identified risk as a major currency of governance and self-governance in neoliberal society.4

Since it entails imagining uncertainties and projecting potential futures, risk is always in some sense imaginary. It is “a construction of an observer,” in the words of sociologist Niklas Luhmann.5 The unique design of 30 St Mary Axe addresses the ways we imagine the risks associated with climate change, terrorism, and financial globalization. Spiraling atriums with windows that open to allow natural ventilation suggest that innovative design can help highly technological societies use less energy and slow down potentially catastrophic human-induced climate change. Protective barriers, security cameras, and a diagrid structure enclosing shops along a public arcade and plaza suggest that resilient design can secure the open society by making even a prominent terrorism target accessible and welcoming. A handsome new skyscraper in the City of London, the quasi-autonomous financial district at the heart of the British capital, suggests that quality design can enlarge the supply of prestige office space for global businesses without jeopardizing the visual appeal of London’s townscape for residents and tourists.

[…]

By reshaping salient risk imaginaries, the building mediated significant changes in the City of London’s spatial form, economy, and governance. The Gherkin’s development established a new cluster of branded high-rise office towers that expanded economic activity in London’s financial district by changing its physical and urban character. Its planning and design provided a framework for revisions to planning regulations that favored the interests of landowners, developers, and multinational financial services firms over those of heritage conservationists—changes linked to a restructuring of governance that diminished the autonomy of the City Corporation, the City’s distinctive and traditionally insular government. The design and construction of 30 St Mary Axe are a smaller-scale instance of what Arindam Dutta calls “metaengineering”: the design of entire economies through intertwined architectural, urban, and policy intervention.6

[…]

Climate change

The Gherkin may have supported gymnast Ben Brown well in his Olympic bid vault, but it affords only precarious footing to the giant polar bear featured in a poster created three years later by activists from the Camp for Climate Action to publicize a mass protest at Heathrow Airport against the environmental degradation caused by air travel. Teeth bared, the bear stands atop the tower swatting at jets. Seeking purchase on the smoothly rounded tower, its claws grasp at the slight relief offered by spiraling mullions and fins.

Conflating the story of King Kong, a jungle monarch captured and killed by the metropolis, with the climate change icon of the solitary polar bear stranded on a melting ice floe, the poster associates the Gherkin with the rest of London’s corporate office towers through its sooty brown coloring yet sets the building apart by foregrounding its unique form and patterning. Like the Empire State Building for the famous gorilla, the Gherkin is at once the epitome of destructive capitalism and a redoubt that evokes aspects of the bear’s native environment while offering a dubious last chance for survival. Echoes of September 11 tinge the image with menace, suggesting that the Gherkin epitomizes the hubris of global finance. For artist Rachel Bull, the building is an ambivalent climate change icon courting risks beyond its capacity to manage.

[…]

Articles about the design emphasized the mixed-mode ventilation that would cool the building much of the time. Many writers repeated the claim by Foster + Partners that the building management system would exploit these features to reduce the building’s energy consumption by as much as fifty percent relative to other prestige office towers. “Nature takes care of the temperature of the building,” explained Norman Foster in one interview. “It is only in extreme heat and cold that the windows close and the temperature is regulated by the automated air conditioning system.”7 The Gherkin was “London’s first ecological tall building,” in the phrase used by Foster + Partners and circulated widely in the press, and it soon became a case study in books and courses on building technology and sustainable design.8 The building emblematized the potential for architectural innovation to reduce resource consumption and so to reduce the likelihood of catastrophic climate change.

Managing climate risk was deeply inscribed in the design of 30 St Mary Axe because it was integral to the market mission and brand identity of the client. Swiss Re is a reinsurance firm, the world’s second-largest insurer of insurance companies. It manages the risks taken on by risk managers. Reinsurance emerged in the 1820s as a local and regional risk-spreading measure among fire insurers in Germany and Switzerland, becoming an integral part of the financial risk management sector as the insurance industry internationalized during the latter part of the 19th century. Created in 1863 by two primary insurers and a bank following a fire in Glarus, Switzerland, the Swiss Reinsurance Company by the turn of the 20th century was a leading firm in a globalized reinsurance market. While the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 tested its capacity to meet its obligations, the firm remained solvent to benefit from Swiss neutrality during World War I and from the weakness of Germany’s economy after the war, when the Swiss firm bought one of its competitors, Bavaria Re. The company expanded after World War II as social insurance became widespread among industrialized nations, and it has remained among the largest reinsurers alongside rival Munich Re.9

In 1995 the company created a new corporate identity, taking “Swiss Re” as its global brand name and adopting a new logo and minimalist graphic language. Shortly afterward, the firm constructed headquarters buildings for its operations in the United States and the United Kingdom, making architecture “a crucial communications tool and an intrinsic part of the Swiss Re brand,” according to Richard Hall, author of Built Identity, a company-sponsored volume on the firm’s architecture.10

[…]

Natural catastrophes are the primary cause of insured losses, so Swiss Re attentively monitors and predicts the impact of weather and climate on economic activity. The firm emphasized sustainability in its corporate literature and policies before many others did; lighting designer Mark Major recalled receiving a “massive” sustainability manual from the firm, the first such document he had encountered.11 “For us, sustainability makes excellent business sense,” explained Sara Fox, the project director hired by Swiss Re to direct construction and occupation of 30 St Mary Axe, “because we pay claims on behalf of clients for floods, heat waves, droughts. To the extent that these claims are related to global climate warming, it is only prudent of us to contribute as little to it as possible.”12 At the same time, the company would seem to benefit from perception that climate change poses insurable business risks, so calling attention to climate risk could stoke demand for the company’s products.

[…]

By thematizing its environmental control systems and energy consumption features, Swiss Re’s new UK headquarters at once highlighted climate risk and demonstrated the company’s commitment to managing that risk through practices of sustainability

[…]

The building’s ostentatiously streamlined form, tinted glass spirals, and visibly operable windows called attention to its capacity for supplementing or substituting mechanical ventilation with natural ventilation. Intentionally understated lighting at the building’s crown emphasized restraint in energy consumption. The smoothness of that crown, where the doubly curving curtain wall resolves into a glass dome, eliminates the roof that so often supports chillers and fans—visible elements of industrial environmental control. By tucking this equipment into plant rooms near the top of the tower—as well as into the basement and a six-story annex building across the plaza—the building obscures the extent of its reliance on energy-intensive mechanical ventilation and temperature control. Instead of supporting mechanical equipment, the apex contains a private dining room with a 360-degree view that spectacularizes London. Seen from outside, as an element in the skyline or a distinctively patterned whorl in satellite images of the city, the summit of this distinctively roofless building stands out from neighboring buildings.

[…]

The Foster + Partners brand is associated with highly controlled, self-contained buildings that employ modern industrial materials to celebrate technology and tectonic articulation.

[…]

In presentations to clients and planning officers, project architect Robin Partington likened an intermediate scheme to an egg, while Foster compared later versions to a pinecone. The firm constructed a lineage for the Gherkin that stretched back to the work of Buckminster Fuller, the onetime mentor of Foster’s who is a primary reference point for some concepts of sustainable design.14 The building’s architects saw the Gherkin’s interior atriums as successors to planted “sky gardens” in the Commerzbank headquarters. The plaza and shopping arcade at the building’s base were modest vestiges of earlier schemes that featured extensively tiered leisure and commerce zones. To the architects they evoked precursor projects that reimagined the work environment as a planted landscape of open-plan trays within a glass enclosure, including the landmark building the firm had completed in 1975 for the insurance firm Willis Faber & Dumas and the Climatroffice, a 1971 concept for a multilevel escalatored office environment enclosed by an oval triangulated spaceframe.

The section and plan of the Climatroffice project (1971) show how the Foster firm reconceptualized the platforms, escalators, and enclosure of the U.S. Pavilion as elements in a freestanding climate-controlled office building. Courtesy of Foster + Partners.

The U.S. Pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal, in which the United States Information Agency set floor decks linked by elevator and escalator within a five-eighths geodesic sphere, provided a model for the Climatroffice and successor projects from Foster + Partners, including 30 St Mary Axe.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Fuller and Foster collaborated on a few unbuilt projects, and the Climatroffice was a direct adaptation of the U.S. Pavilion from Expo 67,

An early attempt to regulate building climate performance by automating environmental control systems. Intermediate schemes for Swiss Re, known colloquially as “the haystack” and “the bishop’s mitre” or “breadloaf” adapted the platforms and escalators of the Climatroffice and the U.S. Pavilion to the St Mary Axe site by partially submerging a stack of staggered floorplates below ground and encasing the stack in a glass-and-steel diagrid enclosure recalling Fuller’s spaceframes.15

This schematic design from spring 1998 envisions 30 St Mary Axe as an adaptation of the Climatroffice, with staggered floorplates set within a curving steel-and-glass enclosure.

Photographed in March 1998, these study models show the massing already permitted by the Planning Department alongside some of the alternative building configurations considered by Foster + Partners early in the design process.

With its diagrid structure, double-curving glazed skin, and automated building management system (along with a rotating sunshade intended for installation inside the apex but not completed), the Gherkin evoked the U.S. Pavilion’s five-eighths geodesic sphere stretched vertically to improve its aerodynamics and accommodate office floors to a height capable of realizing the value of its constrained but expensive site. With his collaborators Shoji Sadao and John McHale, Fuller intended the U.S. Pavilion to function as a Geoscope (a global hypermap) and a facility for exposition visitors to play the World Game, a scenario simulator through which they would test strategies for redistributing resources in order to maximize human well-being. The platforms and escalators that filled the Expo dome were added by another firm at the client’s insistence. At 30 St Mary Axe, as in the Climatroffice, Foster + Partners adapted the pavilion as built rather than as initially conceived, setting aside Fuller’s technocratic utopianism while adapting its forms, aesthetics, and technical solutions. Despite these differences, the building claimed the mantle of Fuller’s reflexive modernism, his attempt through technocratic design to automate processes of progressive optimization in resource use and so to steer humanity toward a more sustainable resource use trajectory.16

Like the U.S. Pavilion, the Gherkin suggested that the ecological risks of modernization could be managed through technological innovation and that sustainable design could promote rather than inhibit economic growth. In another parallel to the U.S. Pavilion, the automated environmental control features at 30 St Mary Axe failed to achieve declared objectives. In practice, the Gherkin has not achieved the economies heralded during its construction and first occupancy. Its vaunted energy performance is imaginary.

[…]

On Tuesday, April 26, 2005, though, that regulating geometry failed in a small but significant way when one of the building’s operable windows broke off and fell some twenty-eight floors to the ground. Building managers concluded that one of the mechanical arms controlling the window had failed.17 Following this episode, Swiss Re and its management company disabled the mixed-mode building control system as they tested and replaced the chain-drive motors controlling window operation. The system has been used on only a limited basis since. Many tenants have walled off the atriums, and some have insisted on lease provisions guaranteeing that mixed-mode ventilation will not be employed in their zones. Since 2005, as far as I can determine, the windows have opened only occasionally, and only on the lower floors, which are occupied by Swiss Re. This means that mixed-mode ventilation is available in only one of the four sets of six-story atriums. For all but its first year of operation, then, the building has run primarily on mechanical ventilation.18

One of the environmental consultants who modeled the building’s anticipated performance compares its owners and facility managers to overly cautious sports-car owners who never take the Ferrari out of second gear. But it’s not clear that the building could have lived up to the promised energy savings even if its mixed ventilation mode were fully activated. The enclosure and ventilation system combine building components taken from climate-control strategies that are usually deployed independently and that may not work together from the point of view of building physics.

The double-skin façade zones encased by clear glazing presume that air between curtain wall layers will absorb solar heat, rise due to the stack effect, and vent to the exterior through narrow slits at the top of each two-story structural bay. But these cavities are open at their sides to the two- and six-story atria that are intended to draw fresh air through the building by exploiting external pressure differentials.

These atria in turn are—or were—open to the adjoining office floors. Rather than operating as discrete systems, then, the cavities, atria, and floors are integrated into continuous air masses. So if the triangular operable windows were opened as intended for natural or mixed-mode ventilation, the stack effect venting of the double-skin facade zones, the pressure-differential venting of the spiral atriums, and straightforward cross-ventilation within a single floor could all be operating simultaneously—and at cross purposes.19

[…]

the performance of the mixed-mode ventilation has never been rigorously tested or empirically confirmed.

Nor has this hybrid of ventilation systems been employed in another tower, by Foster + Partners or another firm, in more than a decade since the design was completed. The combination of double-skinned facade, atriums, and open floors connotes improved environmental performance and aligns the building with symbolically powerful precursors. But what it yields functionally is an internally incoherent environmental control system of undetermined performance capability.

The Gherkin makes extensive use of industrial materials whose manufacture consumes a great deal of energy, and the atriums give it an unusually low ratio of usable square footage to total square footage. If its provisions for natural ventilation aren’t used, 30 St Mary Axe is not a green tower, it’s an energy hog. So it’s striking that the building has been a critical and financial success despite its failure to realize one of the headline claims made about its design.

[…]

Even if it has not reduced the energy consumption of its occupants, 30 St Mary Axe has changed that risk imaginary by persuading people that design can manage the climate risk of postindustrial production. For this, the building needed to change perceptions, and this task was achieved by design features that highlight the building’s capacity for natural ventilation, combined with simulations that imagined how the building would perform.21 In legitimizing the building as an exemplar of sustainable design, the simulations created space for the design risks that this innovative and cynical building runs. Addressing the imagination rather than the climate, they bought its designers freedom.

[…]

Terrorism

By pulling away from its irregular property lines, the tower achieves almost perfect formal autonomy from its context. The gap between the circular tower base and trapezoidal site boundaries forms a privately owned public space (see also the third image, “Site plan showing the plaza and context of 30 St Mary Axe.”), a civic and commercial amenity in this densely built part of the City.

The plaza is much reduced in activity compared to what Foster + Partners envisioned during the schematic design and permitting phases of the project

This perspective sketch from fall 1998 shows how the base of the building might function as an airy retail zone extending below plaza level

[…]

This residual urban space allows visitors and passersby to see the building’s curving sweep and to appreciate visually its formal coherence. It also creates a security perimeter, a glacis or open zone permitting video surveillance of all approaches by some of the roughly 115 CCTV cameras located on the premises. Within the building, access to the office floors is controlled by lobby turnstiles that admit staff by card-swipe. Visitors must pass through airport-style security screening at an x-ray and metal detector station to the right of the turnstiles behind the reception desk. Card-swipes also control access from the elevator banks to the office floors above.

These techniques for monitoring and controlling access are standard for high-quality office space in the City. Financial services firms have constructed protected enclaves for their workers since the early 1990s, when the City responded to a series of Provisional IRA bombings by instituting new territorial strategies as a way to “design out terrorism.”22 30 St Mary Axe sits within the security perimeter known as the “Ring of Steel”: the array of access controls, barricades, automobile checkpoints, license-plate tracking, security cameras, traffic monitoring, parking restrictions, and stepped-up policing that encircles the financial services core of the City. By creating a nested series of security perimeters, the building reinscribes the Ring of Steel at multiple scales.

[…]

The plaza is one such device. Shielded by its low walls and planters as well as by bollards capable of stopping a car or truck, the plaza provides “standoff,” the protective distance that mitigates the impact of a bomb blast. Another security perimeter is provided by the building’s structural system. The lateral stability of the perimeter diagrid provides superior blast resistance as well as structural redundancy in case part of the steel cage is knocked out by a bomb or vehicle. The curtain-wall that clads the diagrid enhances the protection it affords: consultants who worked on the project noted that the building’s double-curving form—key to its deflection of wind—would significantly reduce the impact of blast forces in the event of another bombing adjacent to the site. Toughened and laminated glass sheets designed to flex and then break into harmless pebbles are set into deep, cushioned rabbets capable of absorbing additional blast energy. The decentralized and zoned HVAC system, which draws air in through narrow vents between window courses at the edge of every floor and heats or cools it locally using circulating water pipes, eliminates the risk that a chemical or biological attack will travel through centralized air handling systems from a mailroom or main intake.23

By integrating an array of security measures into its design, 30 St Mary Axe exemplifies the cultivation of resilience as a response to the threat of terrorism. (Following the World Trade Center attack in September 2001, with the Gherkin’s pilings already sunk, the steel purchased, and stairs and elevators locked into place, the architects, consultants, and developers performed a resilience check on the building. After concluding that the diagrid structure was likely to survive an airplane impact without collapsing, they strengthened bollards, added a guard station on the truck ramp, eliminated vendor carts from the plaza, and retrofitted what was to have been a property management office behind the lobby with airport-style x-ray and metal detector screening for visitors.24) This building secures itself against anticipated forms of terrorist assault as well as can be imagined given its tight siting and provision for businesses and public uses in its base and plaza. In security jargon, its features provide target hardening designed to discourage attacks and direct them elsewhere through a carefully modulated combination of overt and implicit strategies. Bollards, visible cameras, and security checks encourage target substitution by generating security theater. But because many of the truck barriers are built into the landscaping, blast resistance is integrated into the overall building form, and air intakes are sublimated into curtain-wall joints, the building masks many more of its security measures from daily perception.25

[…]

The property developer was able to purchase the St Mary Axe property and secure planning permission for a tall new building in the midst of a tightly regulated historic preservation zone only because the site had been partially cleared in April 1992 when the Provisional IRA detonated a bomb consisting of one hundred pounds of Semtex and a ton of fertilizer inside a van parked at 28 St Mary Axe. The blast severely damaged the listed neoclassical building housing the Baltic Exchange, the international shipping exchange that since the mid-18th century has been part of the City’s financial sector and the global mercantile economy. The bomb also precipitated planning and policing studies that led to creation of the Ring of Steel following a second bombing one year later in Bishopgate, just a block away from St Mary Axe.

[…]

in choosing to consolidate its London workforce into a single tall building sited on the Baltic Exchange property, Swiss Re significantly increased its terrorism risk exposure.27 Since the company’s business is reinsurance against risks, including those of terrorism, the exposure it purchased at 30 St Mary Axe was not only a liability—it was also an asset. By highlighting the company’s commitment to managing terrorism risks through prudential planning, design, and policy, a distinctive new building on a symbolically charged site like this created value for the reinsurer as it expanded its activity in the UK market.

[…]

By soliciting risks and handling them ostentatiously yet seemingly effortlessly, 30 St Mary Axe accrued capital for the clients and the City of London, for the architects and their consultants—and also for design as a risk management practice. With each solicitation, gain, and management of risk, the design acquired agency by becoming a stronger branding instrument.

[…]

Created in 1993, Pool Re spreads insurance liability for terrorist attacks and other catastrophes across all the insurers active in the UK market. Because extreme losses beyond predefined commitments made by the private insurers are guaranteed by the British state, Pool Re spreads ultimate liability across the entire UK taxpayer base, socializing some of the most extreme risks borne by private insurers and reinsurers.29 This collaboration between the state and a globalized insurance market in creating a new risk management regime is one of the neoliberal mechanisms for “governing at a distance” that have displaced the insular “club government” that prevailed in Britain, and particularly in the City of London, from the late 19th century to the late 20th century: a tradition of self-regulation by private institutions and their socially vetted leaders operating via informality, tacit knowledge, and autonomy from public scrutiny and accountability.30 As both the UK headquarters of a major reinsurer and a valuable asset within the terrorism risk zone covered by Pool Re, 30 St Mary Axe emblematizes the new arrangements whereby risk mediates British governance.

Globalisation

Unlike New York and other cities in which zoning codes entitle landowners to some kinds of development “as of right,” the City of London regulates property development through case-by-case review by planning officers, who judge how well proposed construction conforms to City-wide plans and guidelines regarding factors such as building height, development density, access to transit, impact on views and the visual character of the area. In order to develop the Gherkin, the property owners and Swiss Re had to secure planning consent from the City Corporation, the governing body of the City of London, through its chief planning officer, Peter Wynne Rees. The review and permitting process that culminated in the granting of planning consent in August 2000 spanned not only the planning office but also the market, the courts, and the press. Rees brokered a multilateral negotiation so intensive that we could almost say the building was designed by bureaucracy. Part of that negotiation entailed imagining and staging risk: climate risk and terrorism risk, but especially the financial risks associated with globalization.

As the Olympic bid poster reminds us, the Foster + Partners design for 30 St Mary Axe helped the City of London to rebrand itself as a center of innovation and investment, and so to secure the City’s position within a neoliberal economic geography construed as a competition among cities for global capital and its management.31 These triumphalist associations mask a more complex history, though. It would be more accurate to say that the building brokered a renegotiation of authority, decision-making, and spatial control through which the City Corporation traded a measure of the autonomy it historically possessed in order to retain meaningful sovereignty in a changing world.

A block west of the St Mary Axe site was the 47-story Tower 42, designed in the late 1960s by Richard Seifert and at 183 meters then the tallest building in the UK. Since the building’s completion in 1981 the City had enforced an unwritten prohibition on further skyscraper construction, steering developers and architects toward the design and construction of “groundscrapers,” low-rise but horizontally extensive buildings that evoked neoclassical business palaces of the Edwardian era while providing minimally obstructed floorplates along with the communications cabling and air conditioning required for computing-intensive trading.32 These large buildings, which emulated North American precursors in providing the large floorplates and open workspaces preferred by multinational corporations and large financial firms, reflected a concession on the part of planners to a transnational range of clients and developers increasingly prevalent in the City office space market after the “Big Bang” banking deregulation of 1986.33 Construction of the Canary Wharf development in the Docklands had created a second business district a few miles to the east, its American-style skyscrapers drawing some large banks and financial services firms from the City, which was also conscious of competing with Paris and especially Frankfurt for the footloose capital of Europe’s financial services business.

[…]

For English Heritage, SAVE Britain’s Heritage, and other preservation advocates who opposed the initial Foster designs, the prospect of a skyscraper on the Baltic Exchange site risked jeopardizing the visual management framework that regulated development based on a network of protected views toward the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral.34 Negotiating among the various parties to the development process challenged the City Corporation to balance the risk of breaking the conservation-oriented spatial regime it had maintained since the early 1980s against the risk of losing its primacy as a location for financial services to competing locations. The team that developed the Gherkin for Kvaerner and Swiss Re had worked together previously in developing Canary Wharf. By suggesting that they would build in the Docklands rather than occupy the consented GMW groundscraper, Swiss Re and Kvaerner pressured City planners—but also empowered them—to lift the prohibition on tall buildings. This stance was a bluff, but it established one component in the rhetorical framework within which the City ultimately changed the regime regulating its architectural and urban form.

The other component of that framework was design. Kvaerner hired Foster + Partners in 1996 to draw up an office tower for the Baltic Exchange site. From the start, the task of this design was to realign risk imaginaries so that for Rees and his City Corporation constituency the risk of denying permission for a tall building would seem to exceed the risk of granting it. The Foster firm responded with the Millennium Tower project, an implausible proposal imagining a skyscraper with 1,700,000 square feet of floor space that, at 385 meters tall, would have dwarfed every other building in Europe.

Included among the documents submitted toward the end of the planning review was this chart showing some of the variant designs considered for 30 St Mary Axe between 1996 and 2000

This design was a provocative bargaining posture signaling to the heritage lobby and the City Corporation that the new owner expected to be able to build a tower on the Baltic Exchange site. Shortly afterward the Foster firm prepared a more realistic 170 meter version for Kvaerner to show to prospective occupiers.

[…]

Rees allowed Swiss Re to develop a large volume of office space in a tower just three meters shorter than the NatWest Tower. In return, he extracted concessions: the building would provide a public plaza, it would accommodate retail uses, and it would achieve a high standard of “design quality.”35

The granting of planning consent for 30 St Mary Axe did not only reflect a shift in policy regarding this particular site. It also initiated a new regime of spatial regulation governing development in the City. Codified two years later in a new Unitary Development Plan, this regime welcomed high-rise towers within “clusters” that deferred in some degree to the view corridors around St Paul’s Cathedral, so long as the new buildings provided public amenities and exemplified quality design.

Towers permitted under this new regime include Heron Tower, the Leadenhall Building (The Cheesegrater), Broadgate Tower, the Pinnacle, and 20 Fenchurch Street (The Walkie-Talkie).36

Displayed in fall 2011 at the marketing office for 20 Fenchurch Street, this visualization imagined how the new cluster of skyscrapers around the Gherkin would appear from across the Thames

Branded like 30 St Mary Axe with signature profiles and nicknames, these skyscrapers maximize the value of City land while using design to raise rents and profits. This regulatory shift allowed local and multinational landowners, developers, and investors to capitalize on the increased value of City properties, and it reasserted the primacy of the City of London among the world’s centers of banking, insurance, and finance. Led by the Swiss Re project, these towers have transformed London’s skyline, urban character, and real estate market. A study conducted a couple of years after completion of 30 St Mary Axe found that the Gherkin had displaced the dome of St Paul’s as the most prominent City landmark in the perception of City workers.37

[…]

as geographer Maria Kaika points out, construction of the Gherkin should also be understood as a defeat for the City Corporation, since achieving these economic gains entailed the loss of a measure of control over the city’s form and appearance.

[…]

Pressure from transnational corporations and capital since the Big Bang, she argues, “forced the City to reinvent its spatial identity” in a way that favors skyscrapers over conservation considerations as it generated a form of architectural patronage identified not with City’s traditional institutions but with transnational capital elites. The towers built since 2002, she concludes, are not the “commitments in stone” of a prior era but rather “functional objects of capital accumulation” that “operate more as branding objects for multinational corporations or as speculative objects for real-estate developers.”40

Risk design

Survey Foster’s London from the private club at the top of the Gherkin. At your feet is the Square Mile, dotted with and fringed by Foster + Partners office buildings: Moor House, the Wallbrook, offices at 10 Gresham Place, and headquarter buildings for Bloomberg, Allen & Overy, and Willis. To the south are buildings at Tower Place and, just across the Thames, the new development of More London, including several more office buildings and the striking City Hall—leased by its private developer to the Greater London Authority. Downriver to the east in Canary Wharf you’ll see the Citibank tower and the HSBC UK headquarters. With a little imagination you can picture the Canary Wharf Underground station, too. Upriver to the west are several more projects, including the Millennium Bridge across the Thames, a redeveloped Trafalgar Square, the National Police Memorial, the roof over the British Museum’s Great Court, buildings at the Imperial College, and Wembley Stadium.

Your view of some of these buildings will be blocked by the even taller skyscrapers that have gone up nearby since 2004 as the cluster has grown. You’ll still see the river, though, where you might spot one of the YachtPlus 40 powerboats that Foster designed cruising upriver toward the Albion Riverside offices and the Riverside Apartments and Studio in Battersea. This is where the firm is headquartered. It is also where Foster kept his primary residence until 2008, when he transnationalized himself and became a tax exile—footloose rather than place-loyal, a Swiss citizen rather than a British Lord. The previous year, Foster had restructured the firm (valued at about 300 million pounds or $593 million) to prepare for eventual succession and cashed out by selling a forty-percent stake in the company to a London-based multinational private equity and venture capital firm.42

By building so many prominent commissions associated with millennial London, Foster + Partners has strongly shaped the cast of the contemporary city.43 Modernist but classically so, favoring self-contained and symmetrical geometries along with a high standard of craft and the deep detailing of high-quality materials, the architecture of Foster + Partners connotes progressive innovation. The firm’s impact on the city has become so extensive that it must be considered in urban and economic terms, as a practice of metaengineering. Like Arup, and often—as in the case of 30 St Mary Axe—in partnership with Arup, Foster + Partners designs not only buildings but also economies and governance practices.

Foster and the firm he founded have been central to remaking London over the past two decades because their architecture fits the vision of New Britain put forward by New Labour from the mid-1990s through the 2000s, including neoliberal methods for governing at a distance through risk.44 Noting that the firm’s buildings more often provide the appearance of rationality than they deliver rational functionality, some critics have concluded, as one puts it, that the firm “supplies the look of innovation without the pain of actually changing anything” for a British establishment seeking to maintain its authority by appearing to change.45 Studying the Gherkin suggests a different conclusion. Addressing the ways we imagine risk and opportunity in climate change, terrorism, and financial globalization, the firm’s buildings sometimes use design to transform economies and governance.