How Technology Betrays Us

Imagine this: you are a citizen of a country controlled by an oppressive regime.  There has just been an election, the first in your country’s history, to establish a new, publicly-decided leader.  However, the results are disclosed within hours, a nearly impossible feat given both the country’s size and its lack of organization.  You suspect that there was no real election at all.  When you find out that the results show the more religiously-conservative candidate winning, the one favored by your nation’s religious leaders as opposed to the one lauded by the public, you are enraged.  Spurred by the seemingly great injustice which has been inflicted on your country’s emerging freedom, you decide to compose a heated blog post from your home computer against the government, calling the election a fraud.  You make your post and then go to bed, feeling the silent satisfaction of at least being able to speak your mind freely and anonymously through the internet. Little do you know but, from the second you posted that incendiary message, your government added a new name to its permanent, “freedom fighter” watch list: YOU.

This scenario might seem impossible; that because one hides behind a witty screen name his or her identity is protected.  However, these symbols of anonymity are all a ruse.  General ignorance on the part of the public about the ease with which governments can use the internet to track their citizens, results in the arrests of more and more freedom fighters every day.  Those arrested aren’t always the usual suspects, like terrorists or fundamentalists who burn themselves alive outside of the pentagon.  Most belong to more subtle groups, such as those which fight for freedom by trying to pursue it.  They may be Chinese children who want to find out what really happened at Tiananmen Square, student protesters who want fair elections or mothers and fathers who want their children’s school board headed by someone who isn’t corrupt.

Governments and businesses all over the world have been using methods of spying for years.  But an increasing dependency on using the internet to express oneself, a dependency which many have come to develop in recent years, has given rise to new and improved forms of spying.  Most of these new forms have been utilized by governments to track their citizens’ every thoughts and interests.  Governments can observe everything that we look at and say over the internet.  Surprisingly, only two simple facets of the internet are responsible for enabling most of these exploits: IP addresses and “cookies.”

One’s internet IP address serves a similar purpose to his or her street address.  It tells other computers seeking to communicate with a particular computer where to send their data, which may be in the form of anything from a webpage to a video.  An IP address is usually formatted as a long string of numbers with periods (ex: “123.45.678.90”).  These numbers, while serving as a digital route for both sent and received data to travel along, can also be used to discern a computer’s geographical location on Earth.  It is widely known which cities, counties, states and countries own particular bands of the IP spectrum.  By localizing an IP address to one of these bands the government, or an outsider, can narrow down the location of the computer carrying that address to a single internet provider and then to a single city.  From there, that government or outsider can simply contact the internet provider to find the specific house which posted the anti-government message the previous night.  After just one visit to an internet provider, oppressive governments can know exactly who their citizens are and where they live. (EFF SSD)

Cookies represent another security risk faced by people every day.  Where IP addresses are more for discerning users’ locations, cookies are more for tracking over the long term.  A “cookie” is a file that internet browsers store to tell a particular website how frequently a user visits that site. (EFF SSD)  Cookies also can track how popular certain sites are with returning users and keep users logged into password-protected sites over several visits.  Some websites have even started using long-term cookies, those that don’t just expire after a week or a month.  Google, for example, uses a cookie which expires in 2038 and can track what searches a particular user does until that date. (Google Watch)

While it is surprising how the internet can be used to see what one looks up and writes, it is even more surprising that something that nearly everyone carries each day poses an even greater security risk: cell phones.  Through the use of “triangulation,” a cell phone service provider can track a phone’s location to within a few meters at any point during the day.  These same providers can see what one types into a blog on his or her cell phone even listen in on conversations.  With such a plethora of tracking methods in existence, it would be a miracle if not a single one had been used to the advantage of oppressive governments.  But like they say, “a gun placed on the mantle in the first scene must go off by the third,” and this technology has definitely been used in the manners described. (EFF SSD)

The scenario in the first paragraph was not fictional.  It was reality for many bloggers who spoke out against the 2009 election fraud in Iran.  Software sold by Nokia to the Iranian government, a government which has notoriously been associated with the abuse of human rights, was used to search through cell phone and internet messages during the protests. (Rhoads 2009)

Though tracking technology could be used in a meaningful way to find producers of online child pornography or to identify possible terrorists, so far it has been used in most instances to invade the privacy of innocents.  Further, by exposing political dissenters and corporate whistle-blowers to the wrath of their more powerful leaders, tracking discourages change and encourages fear in simply disagreeing with one’s own government.

Fortunately, there are some ways to maintain anonymity while using the internet and cell phones.    Anonymizing programs like TOR can be utilized by the average citizen to surf the internet with little chance of revealing a computer’s IP address. (EFF SSD)  Simply disabling an internet browser’s cookies also can stop that threat.  Lastly, learning to detach yourself from your cell phone will prevent geographical tracking.  These are the simplest methods to circumvent the power of tracking and surveillance in our current time.  If more people take them up, then the freedom initially awarded to us by the creation of the internet will not only stay with us, but also never be taken away.

1. EFF SSD. Defend Yourself Against Cell Phone Tracking.
2. EFF SSD. Mobile Devices.
3. EFF SSD. Tor.
4. Google Watch. Google’s Cookie.
5. EFF SSD. Web Browsers.
6. EFF SSD. Internet Basics.
7. >Rhoads, Christopher. 2009. Iran’s Web Spying Aided By Western Technology. The Wall Street Journal, June 22, Technology section.