New Internationalist

Big Brother online

Issue 369

World developments in security surveillance of internet users

The internet was supposed to revolutionize the world of news: to allow everyone – Chinese and Cubans included – to access independent information, to exchange news and to escape state control. A new report by Reporters Without Borders questions whether the internet has promoted free expression or brought us closer to the era of ‘Big Brother’.

Far from being destabilized by this new medium, dictatorships have discovered how to turn it to their advantage. China, for example, has managed to develop the internet while at the same time taking care that no ‘subversive’ news can get through. With the help of US companies, it has equipped itself with a censorship and surveillance system unequalled in the world. Today the Chinese authorities are capable of real-time monitoring of internet-users – reading their emails and, if necessary, pinpointing them geographically. Result: 61 internet users or cyber-dissidents languishing in prison for expressing their opinions online.

In March this year in Tunisia, nine people were sentenced to prison terms of up to 26 years for downloading files from the internet. They were tried for terrorism on no other evidence than their habit of using the internet.

Every repressive regime on whatever continent now knows how to use the net to spy on its citizens. Cubans have also undergone a painful apprenticeship. In May 2003, 27 journalists were arrested and sentenced to heavy prison terms for posting news on the internet. It appears that the sole Cuban Internet Service Provider, ETEC SA, gave evidence at the trial to denounce ‘counter-revolutionary’ statements that the accused had exchanged online.

But internet surveillance is not just the resort of repressive countries. Most Western democracies now have the means to intercept electronic communications and to control net surfing. The United States – by far the most efficient in this area – has set up a worldwide computer surveillance network known as Echelon with very widespread applications, including industrial espionage, anti-terrorism, and cybercrime. With such issues in the balance, respect for the privacy of internet users is easily set aside.

Belgium is currently developing a system to intercept communications on internet broadband. This software can scan the network and reconstruct in real-time a conversation going on in a ‘chat room’ or on an instant messaging service like Yahoo or MSN Messenger.

Nothing can therefore escape the intelligence services – at least as far as average internet users are concerned. It is a safe bet that people who really have something to hide – such as terrorists and paedophiles – will have the technical means to thwart this surveillance.

The internet is an infinite resource, because it allows everyone – not just professional journalists – to produce news. However, it is a value that internet users will have to learn to defend.

Julien Pain

Further reading: The report by Reporters Without Borders – called ‘The Internet Under Surveillance’ – is available online from the end of June 2004 at http://www.rsf.org

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