The world wide web of sin­is­ter sur­veil­lance

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - LIFE - MICHAEL HAN­LON

LON­DON: It is Novem­ber 2049 and pri­vacy is a dis­tant mem­ory. Ev­ery phone call, SMS, e-mail, video­call and fi­nan­cial trans­ac­tion is recorded, stored, an­a­lysed and can be used against you. The pow­ers that be know how much tax you pay, what you spend your money on, how many chil­dren you have and who your friends are. The pri­vate in­di­vid­ual has ceased to ex­ist and an al­liance of the state and Mam­mon rules our lives.

This dystopian night­mare can hap­pen thanks to the in­ter­net. And al­though this night­mare is set in the fu­ture, it is start­ing to hap­pen. The Net turned 40 last week. In 40 years’ time, will we still be cel­e­brat­ing this elec­tronic marvel or ru­ing the cre­ation of a mon­ster?

The first net­work con­nec­tion was made on Oc­to­ber 29, 1969, when an un­der­grad­u­ate called Charley Kline at­tempted to make a com­puter in Los An­ge­les com­mu­ni­cate with an­other com­puter at Stan­ford up the coast. The first word com­mu­ni­cated on the net was “lo” – Kline was at­tempt­ing to type the word “lo­gin” when the sys­tem crashed.

They got it work­ing again and for nearly three decades what be­came known as the in­ter­net (the term was first used in 1974) re­mained a tool of academia and the mil­i­tary. But then came the in­ven­tion of the world wide web – the means by which any­one, any­where, could eas­ily ac­cess this brave new on­line world.

This was the cre­ation of Bri­tish sci­en­tist Tim Bern­ers-Lee and Bel­gian Robert Cail­liau. Now with ev­ery pass­ing year its power in­creases. And herein lie the doubts of its founders. For while the net has been cham­pi­oned as the ul­ti­mate ex­pres­sion of “peo­ple power”, there is a more sin­is­ter pos­si­bil­ity. Its dom­i­nance in our lives has led its ar­chi­tects to fear it could be used as a weapon of in­tru­sion, sup­pres­sion and ex­ploita­tion.

Al­ready anti-demo­cratic regimes are in­creas­ingly sub­vert­ing the open­ness of the Net. Take China, which went on­line in 1993 and now has the great­est num­ber of in­ter­net users – a third of a bil­lion. This phe­nom­e­nal growth has been sub­sidised and en­cour­aged by the Bei­jing regime. And yet de­spite the flow of count­less ter­abytes of data, China is as far from be­ing a democ­racy as it was at the time of the Tianan­men Square ri­ots of 1989.

It has been es­ti­mated that in East Ger­many the Stasi se­cret po­lice “em­ployed” a third of the pop­u­la­tion to act as snoops on com­pa­tri­ots. Imag­ine if the Stasi had had ac­cess to Google. There would have been no need for a net­work of hu­man snoops; just a few servers qui­etly hooked up to every­one’s tele­phone lines and com­put­ers, cross-match­ing credit card us­age with pic­tures from mil­lions of CCTV cam­eras.

Cail­liau’s fears are echoed by Pro­fes­sor Peter Kirstein of Uni­ver­sity Col­lege Lon­don, who brought the first in­ter­net con­nec­tion to Bri­tain in the early 1970s.

“Once you have a uni­ver­sal medium like this it is very hard to keep in­for­ma­tion hid­den; it is a great tool against op­pres­sion. By the same to­ken it is very straight­for­ward to build mon­i­tor­ing fa­cil­i­ties into the heart of the net­work so that au­thor­i­ties can dis­cover where the in­for­ma­tion they don’t like is com­ing from.”

Far from em­pow­er­ing free­dom-fight­ers, the web can be used to track them down and sup­press them.

Kirstein be­lieves there will be a kind of arms race be­tween the au­thor­i­ties and the sub­ver­sives or op­pressed. Will good or evil win?

Yet Pro­fes­sor Cail­liau be­lieves the “re­ally sin­is­ter stuff ” will come from big busi­ness. Al­ready, Google has been ac­cused of hoard­ing data from its mil­lions of e-mail users.

Many fear Google will be un­able to re­sist the temp­ta­tion of cash­ing in on this gold­mine of in­for­ma­tion it holds. The tech­nol­ogy al­ready ex­ists to en­able com­pa­nies like Google to track ev­ery move of the mil­lions

‘Al­ready, anti-demo­cratic regimes are in­creas­ingly sub­vert­ing the open­ness of the net and us­ing it as a weapon against their en­e­mies’

who have a web-en­abled cell­phone.

It is al­ready hard to live your life without the in­ter­net. Buy­ing air­line tick­ets, bank­ing, in­sur­ance are in­creas­ingly be­ing done via the net. And ev­ery­thing you do on­line can, in the­ory, be recorded for ever.

“If I sign up for Face­book and want my ac­count de­stroyed, it is im­pos­si­ble,” says Cail­liau. “There will al­ways be a trace.”

Com­puter mem­ory is so cheap that it should be pos­si­ble to record in dig­i­tal form ev­ery phone con­ver­sa­tion, TV and ra­dio trans­mis­sion, movie and still im­age.

Two bil­lion songs a day are shared over the Net, hun­dreds of mil­lions of video streams placed on YouTube. In a decade, hu­mankind will be pro­duc­ing more in­for­ma­tion each sec­ond than was pro­duced in the en­tire 19th cen­tury. And all this in­for­ma­tion can be stored, cross­ref­er­enced and mined for eter­nity. This is a new phe­nom­e­non, and has mas­sive and dis­turb­ing po­ten­tial.

As Pro­fes­sor Kirstein says: “Our abil­ity to dis­ap­pear is com­pletely con­strained by any pub­lic ac­tiv­ity.”

There are laws against this, though they are not well-en­forced, but it is still pos­si­ble – just – to avoid be­ing sucked in by the Net. And sur­pris­ingly, one of those try­ing to do so is Robert Cail­liau. “I’m not on Twit­ter, Face­book or LinkedIn, or any of th­ese sys­tems,” he says, “be­cause they suck in your soul and they will not let you go. Try to get out of them, and you will see. They are just like some re­li­gions where apos­tasy is pun­ished by death.” – Daily Mail

PIC­TURE: REUTERS

WHAT NEXT? Chi­nese in­ter­net users go on­line at an in­ter­net shop in Bei­jing. Some of the key peo­ple be­hind the 20th cen­tury’s most im­por­tant tech­no­log­i­cal break­through are fear­ful of the ef­fects their in­ven­tion may have in the fu­ture.

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