NS Internet Column

Email is the perfect medium for indiscretion, partly because it always seems so private, like having a conversation with the book you’re reading. In fact, of course, it’s wildly insecure. I worked in one office where a couple were having an affair in the privacy of the computer system, and the woman kept all the messages he sent her. The day after he decided to go back to his wife his best friend had the job of telling him that a couple of people had been hacking into her sentimental stash and circulating them around the entire office.

That was on a notoriously insecure newspaper system — it is a mystery that newspapers are not more often nor more destructively hacked. But all email everywhere is more vulnerable and more permanent than we would like to believe.

This presents the government with a temptation and the Internet industry with a dilemma. There is no doubt that as more people use email (perhaps a million and a half in the UK at the moment) there will be more and more evidence of crimes committed to the medium; and every email sent to an internet address rests for a while on the hard disks of the ISPs. The Government is due to announce its policy on the interception of such mail next Monday [19 oct].

There has been a certain amount of anxiety among the small group of people concerned with civil liberties on the net. For historical reasons, connected with its American roots, the dominant ideology of the early years of the Internet was libertarian utopianism. Partly because of the attraction of the medium to nerds who understood nothing but technology, there was a confidence that the technology, if it did not fix all ills, would at least enable those who understood it to slip the surly bonds of earth if only the grown-ups and the governments wouldn’t interfere.

In this country there was the further complication of pornography. A great many of the early adopters were enthusiasts of the stuff: thus they had an interest in keeping the government off their hard disks. In those days, it was just amateur stuff: scanned photographs and filthy stories; but much of it would have been illegal on an English newsagent’s shelf.

I know this because I used to hang out with them on Cix, a bulletin board in Surbiton from which Demon Internet was organised. A man named Cliff Stanford, said he would organise an internet feed — the first private Internet access in the world — if 200 of us would put up £120 each for a year’s service. That £24,000 had grown to £46m by the time he sold out this year and there are now 250,000 users of Demon.

With this kind of money involved — and no end to the growth in sight – the whole industry has had to come to terms with governments, and vice versa. Next week’s announcement represents an important milestone on the way.

Of course, it’s still extremely difficult for technical reasons, for any government to impose a purely national regime of censorship on the Internet: it’s like having a rule against peeing in the swimming pool, which is only enforced at the shallow end. So Germany can’t keep its citizens from accessing neo Nazi sites, and British citizens can get Californian porn. But any crime which is taken seriously all round the world, like child pornography, can be pursued energetically and internationally, as the recent Wonderland investigation showed.

Prediction is always a dodgy business, but it looks as if the Government is going to announce that it will treat email and other Internet traffic as it supposed to treat phone calls: if there is a warrant, the police will be allowed to intercept it and to watch what parts of the internet have been accessed by suspects. This may not gain much information. By taking a little trouble, anyone can encrypt their email so that it is completely impossible for even the most powerful computers to read it in the expected lifetime of the universe. Such communications cannot be read in transit: but if you catch the computer on which they are prepared, the key will almost certainly be stored there: the keys used to lock up computer data mathematically are themselves long strings of totally unmemorable letters and digits, so they have to be written down somewhere.

So law enforcement need not be too frightened of encryption if it knows where its coming from and going to. Since everyone with an Internet account pays for it with a credit card, it’s possible in principle to identify them. But here again technology has gone libertarian. Free Internet access services, such as the one launched by Dixons last month, keep no customer records, as they don’t charge. Their customers are, if they want to be, anonymous and so immine from responsibility and retribution for their acts. Who would have thought that Dixons would be providing a service for anarchists?

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