The world wide web of sinister surveillance
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
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.