What is Internet Surveillance?

Posted: April 30, 2013 by Nikolas Sartin-Tarm in Uncategorized

Internet Surveillance is becoming a critical issue in today’s politics, as technology involving the Internet continues to advance and define our daily lives.  Many people don’t realize that, whether they might be casually browsing or furiously attempting to conduct online research, they are constantly being monitored.  As the Web 2.0 begins to underscore users as being both producers and consumers of such a mass information conglomerate, issues of privacy are starting to become more prevalent in our daily lives.

Surveillance of Electronic Communications is nothing new.  Wiretapping of telephones, albeit lacking the surveillance of information or media, was a very controversial topic in the 20th century.  It also laid the foundation for the surveillance policies that persist through the Internet era.  Circuit-switched systems, used in older house phones, could easily have a wire attached, which would transmit the soundwaves to an additional audible location.  Stereotypically, as shown in Hollywood films, Investigators would listen to conversations in a parked van with headphones.

In 1967, there was a US Supreme Court Case, known as Katz vs. United States, that became one of the first surveillance laws passed.  The law passed determined the interception of communications as a search, which requires a warrant.  A few years after wiretapping exposed the infamous 1972 Watergate Scandal of then-US President Richard Nixon, Congress passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which set up a secret federal court to issue wiretap warrants.

The basis of these acts was incorporating the Fourth Amendment with laws on communications.  This Amendment requires that all searches and seizures must be backed up by a warrant, issued if there is probable cause.  The FISA provided three critical components: between US persons and foreigners, between communications inside and outside the US, and between wired and wireless communications.  However, this created a loophole, where radio communications between non-US citizens could be obtained without a warrant.

The United States government, especially during and after the Cold War, began to push for more surveillance of Communications.  In 1994, they passed the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, which denoted that all telecommunications companies make it possible for the government to tap and monitor all communications of any subscriber.  The law came in conjunction with new technologies, such as Optic Fibers, which made it harder to carry out wiretapping.

Initially, this law had little effect on the Internet.  The only application of this provision was in Voice-over-Internet Protocol Systems, where Internet users could call and talk to eachother on different computers.  However, in 2004, the US Department of Justice decided to extend the law to Internet Providers.  Therefore, all Internet providers were required to provide technology to make it possible to track Internet use.

A prominent technology used in web surveillance is packet sniffers.   Computer administrators, such as employers at an office, also use this method.  A packet sniffer is a program that allows viewing of all the information passing over a network.  They can either be Unfiltered, where they capture all the packets, or Filtered, where only packets containing specific elements are displayed.  The information is obtained from a user’s ISP.

Another form of web surveillance is Desktop Monitoring.  Basically, signals that are transmitted when information is being inputted are diverted to desktop monitoring programs, which, again, can be applied by an administrator.  This is common at job sites, where people install software into computers.  However, this can also be done by email attachments containing monitoring software, which is known as a Trojan Horse.  This information can either be streamed or recorded for a third party.  This form of surveillance is also commonly used by hackers to obtain personal information.

Internet Surveillance is done by the government to monitor criminal behavior online.  It is also done by corporate entities to better target certain demographics to advertise products.  It is done by employers to try to reduce distractions and boost productivity.  It is done by hackers who want nothing more than to obtain personal information and possibly capitalize.  It is no secret that Internet Surveillance is all around us today.

This video talks about how the government and corporations use Web Surveillance.


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