Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald recently published an article about the Internet’s underbelly. This is where creepy people creep and the article explores how law enforcement officials and politicians are trying to figure out how to make sure they have complete access to this anonymous, online world.
The article’s lede would make for a great opening to a summertime blockbuster so let’s cue the spooky music and jump right in:
It’s called the Dark Web and once you are in you can buy people, drugs, guns and even have someone killed. The problem is: what can law enforcers do about it?
Deep in cyberspace is a web of private networks hosting sites that Google will never find and videos that YouTube will never play. Within this web, drugs and guns are bought and sold, hitmen advertise their services, hackers can be hired to attack an enemy’s computer and pornographic images to satisfy the most depraved tastes can be downloaded.
It is a place where freedom of speech is absolute and unconstrained. It is the Dark Web, the parallel internet that can be found only through encrypted private networks, unknown by many and accessed by few.
With an opening like this the article quickly moves to Australian efforts to pass laws that “could lead to the web history of any device connected to the internet being logged and retained for up to two years for law enforcement purposes.”
Not that that would really help since the whole point of these anonymizing networks is that those accessing them don’t leave a trace.
But efforts are made, and will continue to be made, in Australia and elsewhere, to ensure that government and authority can always stay “one step ahead of terrorists and organised criminals who threaten our national security.” Politically, that’s always the thing to say. Either right before or right after, we’re doing it for the children.
In the United States we have the same thing happening with an acronym stew of CISPA and SOPA and PIPA all proposed to fight the terrorists and pirates by monitoring the actions of anyone and everyone under very vague (and very few) conditions.
Add to that the recently proposed Lieberman-Collins Cybersecurity Act and we’re looking at a future where government tracks and stores the whole of our electronic communications, from phone calls to emails to credit card purchases.
The infrastructure to do so is expanding. A March cover story in Wired reports on a new data center being built in Utah. Its purpose is to suck down the world’s communication flow which, the article notes, the US can now do to the tune of 20 terabytes of information per second.
Under construction by contractors with top-secret clearances, the blandly named Utah Data Center is being built for the National Security Agency. A project of immense secrecy, it is the final piece in a complex puzzle assembled over the past decade. Its purpose: to intercept, decipher, analyze, and store vast swaths of the world’s communications as they zap down from satellites and zip through the underground and undersea cables of international, foreign, and domestic networks. The heavily fortified $2 billion center should be up and running in September 2013. Flowing through its servers and routers and stored in near-bottomless databases will be all forms of communication, including the complete contents of private emails, cell phone calls, and Google searches, as well as all sorts of personal data trails — parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases, and other digital “pocket litter.” It is, in some measure, the realization of the “total information awareness” program created during the first term of the Bush administration — an effort that was killed by Congress in 2003 after it caused an outcry over its potential for invading Americans’ privacy.
And all this isn’t even considering truly authoritarian states that will, no doubt, be downstream beneficiaries of both the “moral cover” of Western laws and the monitoring technologies being developed. After all, it’s no secret that Western surveillance companies already sell their wares to repressive regimes.
Inflammatory media coverage about online bogeymen aside, how surveillance, privacy and anonymity issues play out over the next few years will shape how our societies operate.
As former NSA code breaker, and current NSA whistleblower William Binney says with his thumb and forefinger drawn together about the expanding surveillance state in the Wired article noted above, “We are, like, that far from a turnkey totalitarian state.”
Journalists have a crucial role to play in how all this plays out.
First is basic education on how digital communications actually work. Second is understanding how legislation like we’ve seen over the past year affects privacy and civil liberties. Third is listening with great skepticism to claims that either a) law abiding citizens have nothing to worry about, b) there will be protections in place and c) we’re only fighting the bad guys; surveillance always expands and our networks and digital communications provide the greatest target any government could ever want or has ever had. And fourth, journalists need to understand the value, rationale and importance that privacy and anonymity have in a functioning democratic society.
The Dark Web is certainly a scary place. But proposed government laws to monitor it — and the rest of us while doing so — are even scarier. — Michael
Image: Scared Kitteh. Original source unknown. Edited by the FJP.