Photo: Giuseppe1999 via Wikipedia

Internet Surveillance and the Impending Digital Exodus

As surveillance and control of our digital networks approaches dystopian levels, could we be heading towards a mass internet exodus?

Communicating in secret over long distances is nothing new. Before computers, the ancient Greeks and Romans used ciphers to scramble their secret messages. In the 1990s, web encryption emerged to secure online e-commerce. Today, most websites encrypt our connections by default, but is a password and a little yellow padlock in your browser really enough to ensure your privacy?

Even if we encrypt our connections, it’s up to our service providers to encrypt our data for storage. Until recently, this was relatively rare — we know this because providers like Google and Facebook serve us ads targeted to keywords in our web searches, emails and social networks. We send millions of emails every day, and they bounce around the web unencrypted. And it’s trivial for a skilled hacker to harvest our personal details over an unsecured Wi-Fi network.

Despite this, we’re content to keep Facebooking, tweeting and Instagramming our lives away, selling our privacy to whoever offers the coolest free service. Why aren’t we losing sleep at night? Why haven’t we all disconnected and moved to a community for ‘offliners’ in the remote wilderness where everyone wears tinfoil hats and jumps out of their skin every time a watch beeps? We could be getting closer.

Snowden revealed the NSA was harvesting millions of internet records from Microsoft, Google, Yahoo!, Facebook and Skype.

In June 2013, The Guardian and Washington Post revealed the disturbing depths of the unprecedented internet surveillance being conducted by the US’s National Security Agency (NSA). The program, code-named PRISM, was a rude awakening to anyone who valued their online privacy. Documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed the NSA was routinely harvesting millions of internet records (based on keyword matches) from major online service providers, including Microsoft, Google, Yahoo!, Facebook and Skype. Alarmingly, this was all apparently legal under the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, which permits the NSA to ‘monitor the phone, email, and other communications of US citizens for up to a week without obtaining a warrant, provided one of the parties to the communications is outside the US’ (The Register).

Surveillance stencil by Banksy. Photo: nolifebeforecoffee via Flickr

The idea that our data was ripe for the picking did not sit well with us. In a post-Snowden era, we can no longer take it for granted that our data stays private when it goes online. Reassuringly, major tech companies are feeling just as victimised by the PR blizzard surrounding Snowden’s revelations.Microsoft, Twitter and Apple are leading the charge, publicly deprecating mass surveillance and even suing the US government over aggressive requests for user data.

Our governments tell us mass surveillance is the price we have to pay for security in a world gripped by the threat of terrorism — which in the US could be considered paranoia. But we have a choice to opt out ­– we have the technology, we just have to use it. The first step is for technology providers to encrypt our data by default. At best, anything the NSA ‘collected’ would become meaningless ones and zeroes. At worst, our data would be so cumbersome to decipher they might not even bother.

One of the PRISM slides published by The Guardian. Photo: Wikipedia

There’s one specific type of data that’s getting tossed around like a political hot potato at the moment — metadata. In layman’s terms, it contains the details of who you contacted and when, not the actual data transmitted. Metadata is rarely encrypted but it’s detailed enough to be of great interest to intelligence agencies who want to track our movements — and not just online. Metadata from mobile phone towers and Wi-Fi hotspots can be used to track us in the real world. It’s no wonder government spy agencies can’t get enough of it.

In October 2014, the Australian Parliament passed legislation introducing severe penalties for ‘unauthorised disclosure of information relating to a special intelligence operation’ which has been criticised for restricting press freedom. The new laws clearly aim to prevent the possibility of an ‘Aussie Ed Snowden’ leaking information about Australian internet surveillance, should it escalate into the mass data collection we’ve seen in the US.

A PRISM-style program could now become a reality in Australia with the government pushing for a mandatory data retention scheme that would force Australian ISPs to store metadata for up to two years. Data stored under the proposal would include ‘the senders and recipients of emails … [and] the IP address through which a person accessed the internet’, as well as phone call records. Amidst political controversy ASIO and AFP officials clarified that ‘metadata’ would not extend to website addresses visited by users, which would still require a warrant.

The ‘dark web’ attracts a hive of criminal activity. Money laundering, drug dealing and child porn is rife.

With internet surveillance reaching new heights each year, it’s no surprise that a subset of internet users have turned to services which ‘anonymise’ their entire online presence. Networks such as Tor not only encrypt data sent over the internet, but also the metadata attached to it. In addition, traffic is routed through a series of relays, making it almost impossible to link online activity to a single individual. While Tor has some weaknesses, it makes metadata retention efforts significantly less effective.

The ‘dark web’ (a.k.a. ‘dark net’ or ‘deep web’) naturally attracts a hive of criminal activity — money laundering, digital drug dealing and the trading of child pornography is rife. The loudest argument in support of metadata retention is that everyone must be tracked in order to catch these criminal ‘needles in the haystack’. But when all the really nasty goings on are beyond your reach in the dark depths of the Tor network, the only people you end up tracking are regular citizens outside the dark web. And their worst crime is probably pirating Game of Thrones.

NSA headquarters in Fort Meade Photo: Public domain via Wikipedia

Monitoring all internet traffic is the equivalent of having an FBI surveillance van follow everyone around all the time. Metadata retention is not only a waste of resources, it’s ineffective and goes against our fundamental civil liberties. Whatever happened to ‘innocent until proven guilty’? An internet where citizens are forced to lurk among criminals and predators in the deepest, darkest corners of the web just to enjoy their right to privacy is a truly dystopian prospect.

If you mess with the net, you’re messing with our freedom, and revolution won’t be far behind.

If this is the present we’ve accepted, then a Digital Dystopia is the future we’ve earned. And we’re already seeing glimpses of this dystopia beyond the dark web. The internet has become a globally recgnised symbol of freedom: to communicate, share our knowledge; be heard and hear one another. If you mess with the net, you’re messing with our freedom, and revolution won’t be far behind.

After the Chinese government blocked Instagram during the Hong Kong democracy protests of September 2014, its citizens adapted. They turned to swarm-texting app, FireChat, which reconnected them using the Bluetooth built into thousands of smartphones.

When we no longer feel safe on our centralised networks because they’re controlled, filtered and monitored by Orwellian levels of surveillance, we’ll know the Digital Dystopia is coming.

When we see a mass internet exodus onto the rogue infrastructure of democratised swarm networks — when we’re fleeing our electronic habitats in droves as analogue refugees — we’ll know the Digital Dystopia is here.

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