You mean the US government uses the Internet to spy on us? That wasn’t supposed to happen.
Back in the 1990s, early prophets of the global computer network predicted that the mightiest nation-states would stand helpless before the power of the ’Net. Because it lacks a central control system, it would prove virtually impossible to censor, they declared. And because people could use the network from virtually anywhere, without revealing their identities, digital subversives could spew radical ideas with little fear of reprisal or surveillance. “Trying to regulate the ’Net,” said one enthralled law professor, “is like trying to prohibit evolution.”
But while Darwin’s acolytes remain at liberty, the Internet hasn’t gotten off so lightly. Governments worldwide soon learned to monitor and regulate, for reasons both sensible and contemptible. How they’ve done it and why is the subject of Nate Anderson’s sprightly and entertaining book, “The Internet Police.”
Anderson quickly dismisses the fantasy of the uncontrollable Internet.
Despite talk of “cloud computing,” the network isn’t some numinous mist. It’s made up of cables and switches and server computers — real, physical objects run by real, physical humans, all subject to regulation by their local governments. Some Internet pioneers grasped this early on. The misbegotten effort to create HavenCo, an independent “nation” of unregulated Internet servers a few miles off the British coast, was rooted in the realization that traditional nation-states certainly could crack down on the absolute freedom of the Internet. They just needed a reason.
And that reason wasn’t long in coming. Among the millions who hastened online were perverts, vandals, and thieves. They sold phony patent medicines, spewed billions of irksome advertising messages, cranked out toxic computer viruses that damaged millions of machines, even set up global distribution channels for child pornography. With wit and clarity, Anderson describes how cops learned to identify and prosecute online crime.
Take child pornography, for example. Anderson shows how a single smutty video, uncovered by an Australian cop in 2006, has led to a series of global investigations and hundreds of arrests worldwide. Along the way, police unmasked the “anonymous” porn dealers by pinpointing their true Internet addresses. They captured their tainted computers and used advanced forensic techniques to view their hidden files and hunt down still more members of the porn rings.
The police are also taking on the generators of spam e-mails, and are having mixed results. Anderson writes an amusing mini-history of this pestilence, showing how each new innovation in spam-fighting has spawned new innovations from the spammers. The police are doing better than you might think. They’ve found ways to shut down crooks who get millions of innocents to do their dirty work by infecting their computers with “spambot” software.
But not all Internet investigations are quite as admirable, and some investigative methods are all too easily abused. RATs, for instance — Remote Access Tools. These are programs that can be smuggled onto a computer to remotely monitor activities. They can even turn on the computer’s webcam to take photos of the user. When an Ohio schoolteacher bought a used laptop, she had no idea that it had been stolen from the school district, or that the school had placed RAT software on the machine as an anti-theft measure. Her subsequent arrest for receiving stolen property came as a shock.
Downloading music without paying is theft, sure enough. But the music recording industry has used network investigators to identify hundreds of offenders and sue them for damages far in excess of any harm they’ve done. The music and movie industries have even pushed for federal legislation that might have banned US Internet companies from even linking to websites containing illegal files — a flagrant First Amendment violation.
And of course, there’s the prospect of a government that captures vast quantities of network data and analyzes it for evidence of future wrongdoing. Anderson finished his book before NSA turncoat Edward Snowden went public with his shocking claims. But the author’s own description of the government’s investigative wish list hints at a fretful future in which all electronic communication is treated as evidence, even before there’s a crime.
Not exactly what the online visionaries had in mind. But in human hands, even electrons can be corrupted.Hiawatha Bray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.