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How you’re being watched on the Internet – and what to do about it

Is the Internet rapidly becoming less of a safe, free and open place for our ideas, opinions and communication? One could convincingly argue that it is.
Here is what the situation looks like today and what you can (and should?) do about it.

States controlling and restricting the Net

Once, there was the notion that the Internet was inherently conducive to more freedom and a threat to totalitarian states like the USSR. Well, the oppressive regimes of the world seem to have adapted.
As noted recently by Reporters Without Borders, Saudi Arabia, Burma, China, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, North Korea, Syria, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam all control the Internet access tightly for their citizens, filtering “unwanted” parts and chasing dissidents. Another ten countries, including Australia, South Korea and Thailand, were given dishonorable mentions in the report.

States monitoring the Net

If you think the countries that openly restrict the Internet are scary, take a good look at the rest of the world.
It seems like the evolution towards more surveillance is collectively driven by strong active forces; small groups of high-profile terrorists work to provoke oppression while intelligence and security organizations play their part as well, often with the stated goal to protect us against said terrorists and other illegal activities.
We citizens, who are the only counterbalance to this development, often seem to be more occupied with exposing our personal data on Facebook and other sites rather than protecting it or at least thinking about how such information can be abused and how our rights are protected on the Internet.

Recording communications data, filtering the Web

The result of the evolution towards more monitoring on the Internet can be seen in the nearly limitless surveillance initiatives that have sprung up around the world. For example, in the EU a new directive will force operators to record not the content, but nearly all other details of any e-mail, SMS or phone communication and Web connection between six months to two years.
The EU IT-commissioner Viviane Reding is also a known proponent of the kind of filtering system suggested in Australia, where, in the name of fighting child pornography, an independent government agency can filter Web traffic using secret blacklists without prior judicial authorization.

Tapping communications

Several countries have accepted tapping of all electronic communications across their borders while still requiring some evidence to do it internally. One problem here is that domestic traffic is often temporarily routed across borders. Since most countries are doing it, very few messages will remain unscanned. It is not a matter of only investigating suspected individuals or opening selected letters – here everything is parsed and searched.

Tracking what you think and what you do

The popular lack of resistance to a state – one that could be, but has not always been and may not always be, benign – monitoring and recording everything is stunning. In France, where the police only used to be allowed to store certain information about decision makers, a new system will permit the recording of opinions and other personal data for anybody above 13 years of age.

Remember, you are paying the bill

It is worth mentioning that in the end it is usually the taxpayers who end up paying the bill for these initiatives. Since tracking and recording traffic is very resource heavy, the costs involved are often significant.
As an example we can mention a new data traffic monitoring law here in Sweden (usually just called the “FRA law”), where the bureau responsible has demanded money for 250 additional employees, a new super computer to monitor the traffic across the Swedish borders, and larger offices. All as a direct result of the new law. Swedish tax payers are the ones who will end up financing all of this.
And that is just for a small country like Sweden (we took it as an example because this is where Pingdom is headquartered). Imagine the costs of equivalent programs in larger countries.

What you can do to protect your privacy

So, in case you don’t have blind faith in Big Brother, what can you do?
Technically, you can do quite a lot to protect yourself:

  • Protecting your mail: Until quantum computers change the rules for how information travels, open source programs like PGP or GPG will make reading your e-mail very difficult indeed.
  • Protecting your browsing: For encrypted surfing and chatting, Tor is one alternative available with a Firefox extension, the more extreme Freenet and I2P being others.
  • Protecting your data: Full Disc Encryption is hardware or software that will effectively encrypt your entire hard drive, including your operating system. Unless your particular hardware vendor has provided backdoors, FDE can be regarded as quite daunting for most would-be hackers.

But is that really the way to go?

All of the above measures must be used carefully to work. Any carelessness can make the protection useless, and all of these solutions will complicate your life. PGP or GPG requires your counterparty to have and always use a particular key. The anonymous surfing solutions mentioned above are not always stable and will slow down your Internet access significantly.
Governments in democracies change relatively often, but the protection of basic rights for citizens will hopefully be slow to change. Maybe the best option (while it is still there and your rights have not been taken away from you) is to carefully consider what system you want for yourself and your children, and to make your opinion heard – loudly – to the people you have elected to run your country.
Today the problem is not the lack of opportunity to make your voice heard about these issues, it is the general lack of will to do so. In the future, that opportunity to be heard might no longer be there, or no longer matter. The time to act is now.
Do you think we are overreacting? Or do you know of other monitoring initiatives that we should have mentioned? Let us know – please post your comments below.

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