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The Future of Internet Surveillance

Posted: May 2, 2013 by Morri979 in The Cons

Unlike the United States, most countries in the modern world have fewer opportunities to think and act without hinderance or restraint. This idea is especially true regarding the rights of users on the Internet.  In the United Kingdom, this inability to speak freely on the Internet has become more problematic due to something called a “black box.”

These black boxes, which will be installed by the Security Service Mi5 (Military intelligence, section 5), are a way that user activity on the Internet can be further monitored.  These boxes are intended to monitor emails, social networking activity and monitor calls over the course of a year.  Obviously, any Internet monitoring plan of this degree will receive its fair share scrutiny from civil rights groups and displeased citizens. But politicians in the U.K. are justifying the Black Boxes as a necessity, because as criminals become more technologically capable, so must they.  But what about everyone who isn’t causing trouble? These Black Boxes are intended to monitor all users and the government of the U.K. would have full access to anyone and everyone’s personal information, whether they are causing trouble or not.

Although surveillance of the Internet in the United States seems no where near as drastic as it is in the United Kingdom, it is something that has occurred more behind closed doors. One example of this is what happened to Nicholas Merrill, the founder of Calyx Internet Access and the Calyx Institute.

Merrill, the founder of the Calyx Internet Access (an Internet service provider), was essentially given an FBI letterhead asking him to provide “electronic communication transaction records,” or essentially, they asked Merrill to disclose his customers personal information.  Merrill chose not to comply with the letterhead, stating that it would be unconstitutional, and eventually filed a lawsuit against the FBI and the Department of Justice regarding the National Security Letters statute in the Patriot Act of 2001. Although a judge ruled in favor of Mr. Merrill by stating that this section of the Patriot Act was unconstitutional, the case was soon appealed. After being in and out of court for years the FBI eventually dropped the case, but a life-long gag order was set in place.  What this case proves is that the Internet isn’t as safe as people might assume.  If someone does something on the Internet that the government doesn’t agree with, then they will go to lengthy measures to stop these individuals.  In the case of Nicholas Merrill, the FBI tried to order him to give up valuable, personal information; and even after a judge deemed the request unconstitutional, the FBI still forced him to withhold any information and for many years hide his identity.  What the FBI did to Nicholas Merrill was infringe upon his rights and the rights of the constitution of the United States.

The Internet is in no way a place where user privacy is protected by the common law of the United States. Although certain surveillance practices on the Internet are far from constitutional, policy makers seem to shrug off this fact.  New laws regarding Internet surveillance, like CISPA, are emerging and will further threaten the rights of all varieties of Internet users.

The main problems with CISPA are constitutional issues.  More specifically, there is a nagging question of whether the individual rights within the constitution apply to the rights of Internet users.  While civil rights activists claim that the two are congruent, governmental policies like CISPA would inevitably deny Internet users their right to privacy on the Internet. But if CISPA were to pass, then how long would it take until little black boxes, or something similar, were installed in every American household so that the government could more easily monitor Internet users? You’d like to think this would never happen, but no one expected that a CISPA-like act would ever come about back in the 1990s; so who really knows?



The Architecture is the Truth

Posted: April 30, 2013 by Morri979 in The Cons
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When the public Internet first came into existence 20 years years ago, few Internet users at the time could have ever guessed that it would evolve into its current state.  These early Internet users surfed an Internet, that at the time, must have seemed like an online Eden, or as if a new and virtually endless frontier had just opened its borders–but these views of the Internet are seldom discussed in the contemporary world.

So what has become of this once beloved Internet that seemed to filled with endless possibilities? There was a coup and the lowly end-user lost.

The modern Internet has become a place for advertisers and companies to legally track users, and a place where the government can locate terrorists, criminals and anyone else who’s an enemy of the state.  But when did this surveillance begin? And how will politics further affect Internet policy?

Well for starters, this political and economical surveillance isn’t always directly due to governmental policy, but is often a result of the platform that a given Internet site is founded upon.


Jacob Appelbaum, one of the main minds behind Tor (anonymity network) and the “Cypherpunk” activist group, sheds light on this structural problem of the Web.   One of Applbaum’s main points, explained in the above video, is that “the architecture is the truth.” Appelbaum’s argument here is that the “architecture” of whatever it may be (government, financial systems or even the Internet) is set up through a certain structure and that structure is canon.

Likewise, Internet sites are subject to this same “truth” that Appelbaum is talking about. Just like your favorite sport or the government you adhere to, websites are founded on basic pillars, or laws, which essentially set the boundaries for the site. Although Internet sites are rarely created to harm users in any way, the pillars upon which sites are built upon  usually don’t account for those who seek to jeopardize users of the site.

An example of how users are subject to the “architecture” can be seen through various forms of Internet sites and online games.  But the ones responsible for tainting the Internet, and the individuals who use it, are not always hackers and spammers.  In some rare cases governmental organizations are the ones responsible for violating websites and their users.

Congress is still deadlocked over the Bush Administration’s efforts to listen in to phone calls and read emails without search warrants. The sticking point is whether or not to allow private citizens to sue telecom conglomerates, the huge firms that provide most of us with phone and internet service – and helped the Administration spy on us. Now, the Administration wants to try to spy on Americans in another way.
-Bill Moyers

In the early 2000s, users of sites like SecondLife and massive multi-player online games (MMOs) like World of Warcraft were targets of government surveillance, even though most users didn’t even understand that it was a possibility. The government would secretly monitor users’ content on these social sites, claiming that it was to assist the global “war on terror.”  Federal intelligence agencies wanted to monitor these online worlds by studying their social, behavioral and cultural norms, and then attempt to create a system that could detect suspicious behavior.  Like listening to people’s phone conversations and reading their email messages, spying on their activities on social MMO sites is just as much an infringement of personal rights.

But governmental surveillance and monitoring in the United States has reached its next, and most pertinent speed bump regarding Internet privacy of users.  Policy makers are now attempting to pass the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Privacy Act (CISPA), which if passed, will allow sharing of Internet traffic information between the U.S. government and technology and manufacturing companies. In other words: it would be another major setback to ensuring Internet users’ rights.

If CISPA were to pass, then the potential for more instances like the spying of MMOs would increase monumentally.  Civil rights and activist groups have already had a tough time fighting for the rights and privacy of Internet users, so if CISPA were to pass then these groups may no longer stand a chance in the fight for privacy on the Web.