The row over Internet surveillance has taken a new turn, with the founder of the Internet as we know it, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, calling for a “full and frank public debate.”
Sir Tim has expressed his outrage at the actions of international agencies, such as the National Security Agency (NSA) and its British counterpart, GCHQ, after the extent of their surveillance activities was revealed by whistle blower Edward Snowden. In particular, he was angry at the way the international agencies had weakened Internet security by cracking online encryption codes, the security safeguards web users rely on to protect their data, purchases and personal information online.
The NSA and GCHQ have used software to crack codes, which has compromised Internet companies’ guarantees that their emails, financial details and medical records would be indecipherable to governments – and criminals.
Because the software was also in place to give web users peace of mind, and help governments in the fight against cybercrime, the decision to break the codes was slammed by Sir Tim as ‘foolish’ – and criticised for going against all the efforts being made by governments, notably in the US and UK, to fight misuse of the Internet for crime and cyber warfare.
Some of the tactics used by NSA includes the “Tempora” operation, which involved surveillance of Internet, phone and email traffic through undersea fibre-optic cables. Although the UK government claimed to have no knowledge of the operation, it was alleged that GCHQ were aware of it, and that they also knew about “Quantum Insert”. This operation involved doctoring websites, including well-respected business social networking website LinkedIn, to install surveillance software onto the computers of both companies and individuals- without their knowledge.
US “hacktivist” Anonymous, also known as Jeremy Hammond, recently claimed that he was told by an FBI informant to break into official websites of several governments including Brazil, Iran, and Turkey. He claimed that he was used as part of a private army by the FBI to target vulnerable foreign government websites, using another hacker and informant, Hector Xavier Monsegur – as a go-between.
Examples of hacking and spying like this have angered Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who told The Guardian:
“Any democratic country has to take the high road; it has to live by its principles. I’m very sympathetic to attempts to increase security against organised crime, but you have to distinguish yourself from the criminal.”
Sir Tim also disagreed with the condemnation of whistle blower Edward Snowden for revealing the extent of spying that has been taking place under cover of government secrecy – and praised both Snowden and the Guardian newspaper for bringing the breaches of security to the attention of the public. He went on to say that there should be an international system of protection for whistle blowers like Snowden, who is currently taking refuge in Russia.
As a leading authority on the Internet – it’s vulnerabilities as well as its positive uses – Sir Tim is well-placed to offer his opinion on the subject, and his comments are sure to be taken seriously by MPs when heads of UK agencies GCHQ, MI5 and MI6 face questioning by parliament’s intelligence and security committee.
Microsoft has already announced plans to increase levels of data encryption for customers sending their data over the internet, in an attempt to thwart the underhanded internet surveillance methods being implemented by international security agencies, and many major IT companies are likely to follow suit.
Tim Berners-Lee wasn’t particularly surprised by the activities of the spy agencies, but what had been a surprise was the sheer scale of the NSA/GCHQ operations. He said that he believed that revelations about the level of surveillance being carried out online could potentially damage public confidence in the privacy of the Internet.
“When you take away the safe space, you take away a lot of the power of human problem solving,” he warned. (no longer available)
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Written by James Sheehan, a technology enthusiast and avid web contributor.