Big brother is watching you?
What we should do for the internet – and what we can
The last two years have been dramatic for the internet world. After the revelations of Edward Snowden about the surveillance activities of the American NSA and other security agencies, the debate on privacy has changed forever. We know now that our data has been collected by international security agencies for many years. Also, big internet sites as Google or social networks as Facebook do collect our data and analyze them. It seems as if we're under surveillance 24/7, as if we have become completely transparent in the age of the internet. The internet is not any more the free, anonymous space it was at its beginnings. The worrying question is: What comes next?
Ideas how to tackle our loss of privacy are diverse. Whereas some wish we could just get rid of NSA & Facebook, others see no need to do anything, saying they have nothing to hide and surveillance in the internet is to our all benefit. What we probably all agree on is that the current situation is unsatisfying. What we need is a general consent where the internet should be heading. Should it be more the anarchist-like place it was 10 years ago or do we even need more surveillance? But before I discuss those questions, a short overview over what we know right now.
In May 2013, Edward Snowden, a computer specialist working for a security company collaborating with the NSA, released classified information on surveillance activities of the NSA and the so called 'Five eyes' intelligence agencies. He revealed that, following the motto 'collect-it-all', the NSA had routinely intercepted phone calls, collected internet users' metadata and even spied on foreign politicians, as the German chancellor Angela Merkel. Her phone calls got intercepted. Later revelations by the journalist Gleen Greenwald, a friend of Snowden, also showed that the program PRISM had allowed the NSA to request user data from services as Yahoo, Facebook or Google. Also, there had been rumors the NSA had put efforts in trying to crack encrypted data.
Facebook faces a lawsuit. It is accused of having intercepted the messages of users to use the messages' content for advertising. Further accusations at Google and Facebook, but also other services have been made.
Reactions to the revelations about the NSA, but also the developments concerning privacy policies of Google, Facebook and other big internet services have caused international outrage. Generally, people want the spying and the massive data collecting to stop.
Nevertheless, the vast majority of the internet users worldwide has been more or less indifferent about the revelations. The reasons for that are that they do, first of all, not understand how exactly they are spied on or what data is collected. The whole process is very complicated, even for experts.
Also, many users believe that, because they have 'nothing to hide', there is no reason to become active.
There are people who are informed that try to actively change something. But their ideas are different.
They are unhappy with the current situation of privacy.
As a solution, some suggest to rely more on OpenSource, but say that spying and surveillance can be justified in certain situations.
However, others are completely against the idea that someone collects and analyzes their data.
They think governments should not interfere with the internet. Social networks or search engines should just provide services and should not use their user's data. They prefer the internet as a private, uncontrolled space.
The internet is a great challenge for all of us.
It is a technology that will shape and largely dominate our future. In ten or twenty years, people will do most parts of their shopping and communication online. They will pay digital with their mobile phones. They will get their entertainment on online streaming services.
Also, we will store most of our data in clouds. We go digital. It is an irreversible process.
When everything happens in the internet, large amounts of data will accumulate.
It also means that bad things will take place in the internet. The internet offers new weapons.
The world has been hit by three big cyber-attacks within one month.
Sony's movie department 'Columbia Pictures' has been hacked. Hackers released embarrassing emails, health data of employees and leaked a dozen movies, for example a next James Bond. The whole thing will cost Sony millions.
North Korea, who was suspected to have conducted the attack, was just hacked a few weeks later, what caused its internet to temporarily shut down.
At Christmas, hackers hacked Microsoft's Xbox Live service and Sony's Playstation Network.
Those are just a few examples of hacks.
Also, the internet is a place where modern jihadists recruit fighters, who fight for example in Iraq and Syria for ISIS.
And then there is still the 'deep web' and the 'dark web', where for instance drugs and weapons can be found, out of reach for any search engine or normal internet users.
To sum up, the web has created important challenges:
How to handle all the data?
How to use the data, for commercial purposes or the benefit of the users or both?
What to do with threats that may arise from this new technology?
What do we do with those who use the internet to harm others?
Security agencies have decided to collect all data to catch people planning cyber-attacks, terrorist attacks or any other kind of threat. Companies as Google or Facebook have decided to make money with data, with advertisement. They collect the data of their users to then provide them with personalized ads and recommendations.
What we have to see is that they fulfill a task.
Google, Facebook and all other big providers, if search engine or social network, have done a great job in bringing the internet forward.
Personalized information has made advertising easier and more precise.
It has improved our internet experience. Our search engine or social network is learning with us, as well as the website we're shopping at. They realize what we look for and can provide us with the fitting result, what saves us time we would have otherwise spent searching. Also, we get suggestions, for example for other products or results that may interest us, or new apps. Personalized information has made the internet much more convenient and efficient. Nowadays, we could hardly imagine the internet without it.
Agencies as the NSA for example, do have the task to protect its citizens.
When many things happen in the internet, especially bad things, they see it as their task to protect us there as well.
In a way, they are what we can call kind of an 'internet police'. An internet police that controls that no one plans or does something harmful for people, companies or the government.
No one can say exactly how successful this 'internet police' has already been. We don't now how any attacks the NSA prevented. Whereas some say none, others say many. But it is likely that its techniques did at least help to detect plans for possible attacks on America and its allies. Therewith, I mean terrorist attacks as well as cyber attacks.
Nevertheless, an 'internet police' would also have other tasks, as protecting the privacy of the internet users.
The NSA has to alter its ways of surveillance if it wants to be the 'police' of the web.
The NSA spied on foreign leaders and is accused of industrial espionage.
An internet police would have to protect internet users, GLOBALLY, but also accept that it can't do everything. We need rules for those who look for the rules. Just because they protect doesn't mean they have no limits.
And we need rules for those who have large collections of data. It is not okay that the NSA as well as the big networks can do whatever they want to do.
Storing data of users is okay, but we need to be sure that nobody can publish sensitive data or misuse it by manipulating it. Big networks as Google need fixed rules what they are allowed to do with the data or not. Advertisement may be okay, but deliberately scanning messages and then use its content for advertisement is not.
For agencies as the NSA, we need standards. They should be able to intersect user and analyze their data, but only if they have a court decision that allows them to do so. Maybe, it is time to get a bill of rights for the internet. One that acknowledges that there is need for surveillance to protect us. But one that also makes clear where surveillance and the use of our data by big networks has its limits.
To sum up, it is to say that the discussion of the future of the internet is not an easy one. There is no black or white, no easy right or wrong. We have to weight security against privacy. This is difficult, since it means we might have to compromise on both of them. But the complexity is no reason to bury one's head in the sand. As Richard Ledgett said, the deputy director of the NSA, it is an important conversation, that we all have to participate in. But we have to be informed, and we have to look at the facts and the data. We don't shape the internet's future responsibly by believing everything the headlines tell us or by just following the mainstream opinion.