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Watching the Government Watch You

By Abigail Paris | March 18, 2008

Photo By Rodolfo Clix (SXC).

Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter –Thomas Jefferson

Two weeks ago the FBI admitted that it improperly accessed Americans' telephone records, credit reports, and Internet traffic in 2006—marking the fourth straight year of privacy abuses. The Fourth Amendment's reasonable expectation of privacy is eroded as more information and aspects of our lives go online. In reaction, a growing movement of individuals and organizations has created forums that go beyond traditional investigative reporting to expose government problems. Big Brother may still be watching, but people are also pointing the lens in his direction.

Wikileaks developed a site for the mass leaking and analysis of documents that are uncensorable and untraceable. Their primary objective is to expose "oppressive regimes in Asia, the former Soviet bloc, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East," but they additionally "expect to be of assistance to people of all regions who wish to reveal unethical behavior in their governments and corporations."

Global Voices Advocacy works to preserve anonymity and freedom of information. The network not only provides support to its members, but also produces guides about anonymous blogging, anticensorship campaigns, and online organizing. The group "seeks to build a global anti-censorship network of bloggers and online activists dedicated to protecting freedom of expression and free access to information online." It currently has active archives in 36 different countries, including Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and China, which track issues of free speech and human rights.

The groups and sites that monitor government or expose problems sometimes feel the repercussions. WikiLeaks was brought to court in California earlier this year. The plaintiff argued that a disgruntled employee violated confidentiality agreements and banking laws when he provided stolen documents to WikiLeaks, and the judge ordered the site disabled. The judge's decision attracted criticism and court filings from numerous organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who were concerned that the order violated the First Amendment protection of free speech.

In his second ruling, the judge reversed his order to disable the website. According to Wired, WikiLeaks said it "shall not be cowed by those who would silence the truth. It will continue to be a forum for the citizens of the world to disclose issues of social, moral and ethical concern."

Last year, Olivia Muchena, the minister of Science and Technology Development the Zimbabwe's ruling party, was linked to a blacklist of 41 online publications. These publications include Global Voices Advocacy, the Washington Post, and CNN. The minister said, in a report that outlined the role and importance of information and communication technologies, "[c]omrades, we are all aware that Zanu PF is at war from within and outside our borders. Contrary to the gun battles we are accustomed to, we now have cyber-warfares fought from one's comfort zone, be it bedroom, office, swimming pool, etc but with deadly effects."

Muchena continued, "Zanu PF must pause and think who is behind the creation of 'these websites,' the target market of the websites, the influence and impact they have on Zimbabweans and what the image of Zanu PF and its leadership looks like 'out there as portrayed'."

In most progressive democracies, information tracking, storage, and exposure does not lead to cruel or unusual sentences. There have been exceptional cases, but the bulk of information transmitted and received just rests in cyberspace. In countries that are not progressive democracies, Internet and email use (or perceived misuse) can result in direct and immediate action, including exile, life imprisonment, or death.

In 2008, a young journalist from Afghanistan was sentenced to death for downloading and distributing an article that was related to the role of women in Islamic societies. When it comes to personal security, anonymity can be vital—especially as governments catch up with Internet trends, technology, and implications.

The Internet is highly surveilled. Anytime one wants to access the Internet one must go through an Internet service provider (ISP), which is required to keep activity records for six months in Europe and two years in the United States. Additionally, search engines keep records of queries. Google in its privacy statement acknowledges that its servers "automatically record information that your browser sends whenever you visit a website," and that these server logs "include information such as your web request, Internet Protocol address, browser type, browser language, the date and time of your request and one or more cookies that may uniquely identify your browser."

Individual websites also retain information about how one got there, how long one stayed, and how one clicked, scrolled, or jumped. Sites use technology such as cookies which sit on the hard drive of one's computer collecting information, "to monitor the behavior and collect data about the visitors viewing a web page." Unencrypted email can be intercepted, or stored indefinitely on a server, even after it has been deleted.

As Douglas Adams might say, "Don't Panic." There are measures that can be taken to help insure one's anonymity. There are programs, like the Anonymizer or Tor, that use encrypted paths between the computer and the Internet to prevent IP address information from being retained.

For email encryption Lockbin and Hushmail provide free encryption services. Lockbin uses a cryptographic algorithm based on secret word that is created by the user, while Husmail uses a one-time message key, unique to each email that is sent, "to encrypt and decrypt the email message itself." Even with all these options available, according to a 2006 National Public Radio segment, most encryption is still only done within government.


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Read More: Communication, Democracy, Governance, Human Rights, Technology, Afghanistan, China, Iran, Pakistan, United States, Zimbabwe, Africa, Americas, Asia, Europe, Global, Middle East

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