The undercover war on your internet secrets: How online surveillance cracked our trust in the web
By Steve Ranger techrepublic.com
Learn how the battle over privacy technologies could define the future of the web. This TechRepublic cover story explains the strange history and the serious consequences of the fight over encryption.
Ablack shrouded figure appears on the screen, looming over the rapt audience, talking about surveillance. But this is no Big Brother figure seeking obedience though, rather the opposite.
Perhaps even his nemesis.
NSA contractor-turned-whistleblower Edward Snowden is explaining how his former employer and other intelligence agencies have worked to undermine privacy on the internet and beyond.
"We're seeing systemic attacks on the fabrics of our systems, the fabric of our communications... by undermining the security of our communications, they enable surveillance," he warns.
He is speaking at the conference via a video link from Russia, where he has taken refuge after leaking the documents detailing some of the NSA's surveillance projects. The room behind him is in darkness, giving away nothing about his exact location.
"Surveillance is not possible when our movements and communications are safe and protected — a satellite cannot see you when you are inside your home — but an unprotected computer with an open webcam can," he adds.
Over the last two years a steady stream of documents leaked by Snowden have laid bare how intelligence agencies in the US and the UK have waged a secret war against privacy on the internet. How they have worked to undermine the technologies used by billions of people every day to protect everything from mundane messages — or webcam chats — to their most secret thoughts.
Edward Snowden speaking at the CeBIT tech show
Image: Deutsche Messe, Hannover
One of the most significant technologies being targeted by the intelligence services is encryption.
Online, encryption surrounds us, binds us, identifies us. It protects things like our credit card transactions and medical records, encoding them so that — unless you have the key — the data appears to be meaningless nonsense.
Encryption is one of the elemental forces of the web, even though it goes unnoticed and unremarked by the billions of people that use it every day.
But that doesn't mean that the growth in the use of encryption isn't controversial.
For some, strong encryption is the cornerstone of security and privacy in any digital communications, whether that's for your selfies or for campaigners against an autocratic regime.
Others, mostly police and intelligence agencies, have become increasingly worried that the absolute secrecy that encryption provides could make it easier for criminals and terrorists to use the internet to plot without fear of discovery.
As such, the outcome of this war over privacy will have huge implications for the future of the web itself.
The code wars
Codes have been used to protect data in transit for thousands of years, and have long been a key tool in warfare: the Caesar cipher was named after the Roman emperor who used it to protect his military secrets from prying eyes.
These ciphers were extremely basic, of course: the Caesar cipher turned a message into code simply by replacing each letter with the one three down in the alphabet, so that 'a' became 'd'.
Ciphers became more sophisticated, and harder to break, over the centuries, but it was the Second World War that demonstrated the real importance of encryption — and cracking it. The work done at Bletchley Park to crack German codes including Enigma had a famous impact on the course of the war.
As a result, once the war was over, encryption technology was put on the US Munitions List alongside tanks and guns as an 'auxiliary military technology', which put restrictions on its export.
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