Jane Wakefield: Dark side of the Net

The Internet isn't so great at protecting our secrets, but hopefully government obfuscation will get the same treatment
Written by Jane Wakefield, Contributor on

Technology has always been something of a turncoat, capable of siding with the good and bad guys in equal measure. Weapons of mass destruction and life-saving equipment are all grist to technology's mill. The Internet, too, has a touch of the chameleon about it. On the one hand, it unites all races and nations in a global chat room. On the other, it unleashes a Pandora's box of paedophiles and drug smugglers.

It should come as no surprise that a network conceived in secret as the military equivalent to the cockroach -- indestructible in the event of a nuclear attack -- is now throwing our secrets back in our faces.

We gave up information willingly enough in order to be allowed into the Internet sweet shop. The number of forms I have filled in, detailing where and how I live, to get on some Web site or other doesn't bear thinking about. If a statistician were very bored one day, they could probably come up with an alarming illustration of the data mountain harvested from the Net -- "if you put all the personal information gathered on the Internet together it would stretch around the world a thousand times and you'd still get change for a pound", or something similar.

And one day it will be payback time. The government is already considering centralised databases and the sharing of information across departments. In the US, official databases are going online at an alarming rate. Your information seems as likely to end up in the wrong hands as the right ones with security still failing to protect even the biggest Internet corporations. And it's not only government that is the enemy of the surfer -- your bank account details are only a few clicks away from just a moderately curious hacker.

For the paranoid employer -- and with nearly half of all American firms using monitoring software, there are plenty about -- the Internet is a dream come true. Tracking Web usage and email is as easy as following a trail of salt from a leaking dispenser. If you want to sack someone or are just feeling malicious, planting a nasty piece of illegal porn is a much simpler way of framing them than trying to stuff their briefcases full of office stationary. So, if you have a boss that doesn't like you, it's probably best to get rid of your PC altogether -- only a typewriter will protect you from cyber-sabotage and surveillance.

It's not just the Internet that is ganging up to take our privacy from us, either. Imagine a future where the Big Brother screen in the corner of the room is the least of your worries. The bathroom, traditionally a place of retreat and privacy, will soon be monitoring your movements -- literally. Japanese company Matsushita has come up with the wonderful idea of a tell-tale toilet, which analyses the contents of your underpants and passes the results to an Internet service that offers diet and health advice.

There was a time when we used to shout at our bathroom mirrors, but now, it would seem, the mirror is shouting back. A microchipped medicine cabinet is being developed by Andersen Consulting. Like those annoying talking cars that nagged you to put on your seatbelt, the cabinets will call you by name and deliver personalised medical information. As you stumble into the bathroom with a raving hangover, don't be surprised to hear a little voice from the corner: "Well, if we will pour vodka down our necks, what do we expect?" The age of the sanctimonious bathroom cabinet is upon us.

But it's not all bad news. The Internet understands privacy about as well as a two-year old understands why they shouldn't show their knickers in public. If our secrets aren't safe in cyberspace, then neither are the goverment's. Having spent years trying to keep its darker sides well hidden, the Internet is providing a perfect sieve for any one wishing to leak documents. So, disaffected spies are getting Web-savvy, using the Internet to shuffle top secrets into the public domain, leaving few traces and many red faces at MI6.

Information about Echelon -- the US/UK spying network -- started as a drip on investigative journalist Duncan Campbell's Web site, and is now being scrutinised by the European Parliament. Expect a flood of embarrassing revelations as stories of government use of Echelon for industrial espionage and spying on individuals emerge in the coming weeks.

With bills like RIP (Regulation of Investigatory Powers) being rushed through Parliament, it won't be long before the government puts a stop to the Net acting as a mirror to its misdeeds. As the government inevitably puts the lid back on its secrets, it's the public that will remain exposed. In our offices, in our streets and in our homes, technology is watching us. We built the Internet, the microchip and the PC to give ourselves more freedom, but in our rush to invent, we're paying the price with our privacy.

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