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Prism – a window into our lives

Our web movements are being watched – allegedly for our own good – by governments and dissent is not approved

Tim Berners-lee invented the world wide web in 1990, while working at cern. It was conceived as a means by which Berners-Lee and his colleagues could share their research across time and space. However, to its pioneers the web also represented a dream of a better future, where the sharing of global media would shrink cultural and material differences and bring the world together in a common purpose for the betterment of all – an instant medium where we can speak and share our vision with our fellow citizens on the opposite side of the globe, without the interference of spokesmen or intermediaries. To this end, the internet can be seen as a democratising force breaking down the cultural, racial and religious boundaries that divide us all – a medium for the free and open exchange of ideas.

Of course, the universality of the web has made it a target for corporate exploitation and government control and, for their different reasons, companies and governments have sought to direct and control our experience of the web to fit their own ends.

We know the governments of China and Saudi Arabia limit and censor use of the web by their citizens, and we know that a handful of firms dominate our interactions, generating huge profits in the process. We search with Google, we talk to each other through Facebook and Twitter. We buy through Amazon, and look and listen to music or TV through YouTube or iTunes. Much of this is possible because these companies track and refine our activities and know more about us than we would like to know. Few of these hubs of the internet have retained the idealism of the early web.

So the revelation that the NSA and GCHQ are mining the web and scrutinising our data is a disturbing, if not entirely surprising, reflection of the world we inhabit – and represents the flip side of the dream of universal interconnectivity. We are being watched – for our own good – (perhaps with the help of Facebook and Google) and dissent is not approved.

The convenience of the web as a resource for the surveillance sector is that everything we put out there can be mined and trawled, and the problem for us is that there is no way round it. Data that uses encryption or anonymising software is retained and treated by the NSA as suspicious – and the history and purpose of GCHQ is that it specialises in breaking and decoding unbreakable codes. Historically, free and open source software is more secure than its commercial rivals, but as soon as we are on the web we are vulnerable and there are no alternatives that are entirely safe from unwarranted intrusion. The greatest weapons in the fight for privacy are vigilance and transparency.

At the same time we know little or nothing of the other technological activities of our secret services. We hear of hacker exploits undertaken by Russian or Chinese hackers but know little of similar practices by the British or Americans, although exploits such as the Stuxnet virus, which was used to sabotage the Iranian nuclear research programme, may give us some clues.

It may be that all this data is used entirely for good ends, for preventing random acts of violence and subversion by other states, but experience teaches us that there are few limits and almost no democratic control over how our data may be used in the future – and bureaucracy’s definition of what constitutes good and bad activity is notoriously unreliable. There are lots of imponderables and few certainties.

It is often said that ‘if we have done nothing wrong we have nothing to fear’ and our concerns about privacy are a diversion from the greater end of state security. The whistle-blowers are demonised, but whistle-blowing is sometimes the only break on the state’s intrusion into our daily lives.

Whistle-blowers keep us aware of the limits on our freedom and open a window onto the more nefarious activities of our governments – and as Bruce Schneier observes, “whistle-blowing is vital… It’s necessary for good government and to protect us from abuse of power.”

Berners-Lee was troubled by the revelations, and took the time out to tell the Financial Times that “Unwarranted government surveillance is an intrusion on basic human rights that threatens the very foundations of a democratic society… Over the last two decades the web has become an integral part of our lives. A trace of our use of it can reveal very intimate personal things. A store of this information about each person is a huge liability: Whom would you trust to decide when to access it, or even to keep it secure?”