Today marks the 22nd birthday of the world wide web. At 21, a very short year ago, the WWW became of the age of majority in just about every country in the world. For a person to go from ‘child’ to ‘adult’ usually means losing a few illusions and getting more in touch with the real world. It wasn’t any different with the World Wide Web.
From an age of exuberance and endless possibilities in its formative years through unruly teens we now reach the age where adult matters take over, and the WWW finds itself drafted into service. And not just any service, no the WWW and the internet as well have been drafted headlong into the most comprehensive surveillance operation in the history of man to date.
The last year has seen ever more proof that the age of innocence is definitely over, culminating in the saga of the NSA, which is still playing out as I write this. To me, this has stopped to be fun&games. I feel that something has gone terribly wrong with the way the spooks have been given a free hand to put mass surveilance on unprecedented numbers of people, and what they end up doing with all that information.
The current flap is mostly about the NSA spying on Americans, rather than ‘just’ on foreigners, and all this in the name of anti-terrorism. The fall-out from this has seen a presidential plane diverted, the spouse of a journalist detained and a computer destroyed at the headquarters of a very well respected newspaper. When the free press is harassed in the name of ‘national security’ we all have something to worry about.
Besides the question of whether mass surveillance of non-Americans is ok (if it is, how would Americans react if they found out that say the Russians or the Chinese were reading all American email and kept a record of every web page Americans ever visited?), you have to wonder if we assumme the current government is benevolent how we can guarantee that all future governments will be benevolent too. I personally have a hard time believing that that will be the case. Given a long enough future at some point there will be a person in power who can not be trusted with all this intel and who could use it to seriously derail democracy. For all we know this is already happening, the ‘parallel construction’ (tipping off law enforcement with illegally gathered intel by falsifying the source) trick is ripe for various kinds of abuse.
The WWW and the internet present an immense opportunity for the world to become a much better place to live in with a degree of transparency and accountability that we have not yet seen. But the flip side of that coin is that it can be used to the same degree to monitor and control the population.
There are plenty of historical examples of how information was used in very bad ways against the general population of a country.
During World War II the Germans in the Netherlands were able to use the meticulously kept records of the citizen registry to figure out where the Jewish people lived, to round them up for extermination. A brave but ultimately not very effective attack on the registry by the resistance was a last ditch effort at reducing the effectiveness of the registry in the hands of the occupier. Unfortuntely the steel archive cabinets survived the fire and so did most of the registration cards. 12 men were executed in the dunes after the details of the plot were uncovered, and the cattle-trains kept rolling east.
Lots of citizens of former Soviet Bloc countries have - even today - a healthy dislike of anything that smacks of secret files on people, they don’t trust their rulers to always have the populations best interest at heart. The memories (and in some cases present reminders) are all to fresh.
Suppressing meaningful opposition to a government gets so much easier if you know who knows each other and what they have been writing for the last couple of years to their loved ones, friends, family and acquintances. Watergate isn’t all that long ago either, and neither is McCarthy.
In the USA that parallel construction trick is being used right now to funnel information from the NSA to the DEA.
And all this to keep us safe.
It’s been a bit of a slow realization for me, but I don’t actually want to be safe, I’d rather be free and unsafe. I think that if I have to choose between rolling the dice and possibly dying or having a loved one die in some terrorist attack, or a perfectly safe state with zero crime because all the criminals and terrorists are arrested due to perfect oversight that I’d take my chances with crime and terror if the alternative is to have everybody monitored all the time.
Freedom is like anything else that you might want, it has a price attached to it and in this case that price is probably well worth paying.
Happy Anniversary WWW, I hope that in time you will mature and grow into the role that we all had in mind for you when you were small, rather than that you will end up being drafted. Please apply for Conscientious Objector status while you still can.