The Internet is transforming before our eyes from a bastion of personal freedom and empowerment into a tool for ubiquitous, wholesale spying on the citizenry.
The Wild, Wild West
Nostalgia drives us to dream of days long ago when bold explorers and rugged settlers left their homes for the frontier to make their fortunes. Growing up in the 1990s, I didn’t fully appreciate that I lived through another frontier: the Internet frontier. In college, I had a ringside seat to the evolution of the technical marvel we all tap into every day.
Part of the allure of the frontier is the lack of structure, boundaries and authority figures. By its very nature, the Internet was decentralized, hard to control, and hard to monitor, given the technology of the day. Everything was so new that there weren’t really many written guidelines for Internet use. And if there were any, we didn’t know about them and, frankly, didn’t care. As college students, we had a lot of free time; and what we did with our academic accounts would probably have upset a lot of deans had they known, but the technical obstacles to reaching the net were high enough that we really didn’t fear oversight or censure. Surely, there were actual computer criminals at the time, but unless you were attempting to hack a bank or infect systems with computer viruses, there was a sense of privacy and liberation at that time.
The Frontier is Closed
Slowly, over time, the obscure, intimate, largely unregulated nature of the Internet began to morph into something else. Businesses arrived first and made the net more corporate. AOL and other service providers made it possible for the general public to get online. The rarified atmosphere of intellectuals and geeks dissolved into a roaring throng of people coming online for the first time to see what all the hype was about.
Music sharing, which had gone on unnoticed for years on the early Internet, became a legal battlefield as record companies tried to rescue their business model in the face of friction-free duplication and distribution of music. Law enforcement began to confront the spread of child pornography and sex trafficking online. The overall sense of privacy online, while not technically correct, remained. But there was a new sheriff in town and the number of ways one could get into real-world legal trouble by using the Internet had grown by leaps and bounds.
Paranoia or Revelation?
Now in 2013, thanks in part to leaks by Edward Snowden and others like him, we’re learning exactly how illusory our sense of privacy on the Internet has become. While the amount of data exchanged on the Internet has exploded, the ability to automatically capture, store, and analyze this traffic has more than kept pace. More and more, we’re learning that governments in general, and the US most specifically, have the intent and the ability to monitor our digital communications wholesale, without probable cause, and without our consent, oversight or review.
Governments justify such snooping with the “war on terror” argument, but not everyone is convinced by this reasoning, nor are they eager to surrender what many feel should be a right to privacy while online. Indeed, while actual privacy was eroding, the growth of mobile Internet access and social media has made such communication seem even more intimate. People regularly date, hook up, and socialize through their phones as much or more than they do in real life. Until recently, there was no reason to believe that the late-night chats, images, and videos that lovers secretly exchange would end up on some spy’s monitor.
Not only is the frontier definitively closed and the wild-west days of the Internet long passed, but we’ve leapt suddenly into a climate that feels more like a high-security prison than a well-policed town. In real life, we have a sense that certain parts of our lives should be private, and in many circumstances law and custom supports these beliefs. Before email, we put our letters in envelopes with the belief that they would not be opened by anyone but the intended recipient. We lower our voices, close our doors and draw our shades in order to have privacy.
On the Internet, technically savvy people have attempted similar technical solutions to privacy concerns for many years. Nearly any communication can be encoded in such a way that someone intercepting the message will need years of computer time to crack the code. Unfortunately, we’re learning that there are many ways to get around such security measures. If you buy your encryption technology from someone else, you have to trust that government agents haven’t compelled them to put backdoors in their systems, rendering the coded messages transparent to the spies. Gag orders can prevent your supposed service provider from letting you know they’ve compromised your security.
And while such theories might sound like the stuff of psychosis, this seems to be happening for real. Encrypted email providers Lavabit and Silent Circle have closed their doors rather than be forced to spy on their customers. Most of us who use the Internet habitually have assumed a privacy we never had, but now we know more about how exposed we really are. We’re long overdue for a civic discussion on the balance between security and privacy. We need solutions to privacy concerns that aren’t merely technical, but also carry social and legal weight. If we do nothing, we may look back with nostalgia on the days when we felt we could speak freely on the Internet.
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