Imagine, if you will, a world where your personal information is tattooed upon your forehead; clearly visible to all who see you. Everything that has ever been recorded about you put on display without your permission. Such a world would allow anyone to access your most confidential information and use it as they please. Now, you may be thinking to yourself that such an idea is clearly fictional and would never happen in real life. I long for the days when that sentiment was true, nothing like this could happen. Times have changed and so has technology; all of a sudden this fictional world is becoming a reality. No, no one is going to make you tattoo your social security number to your forehead or write your medical history on your arm. However, steps are being taken to make such information easily accessible by any and all corporations. The worst part is, we are more than happy to let it happen. Why? Because of terrorism, that’s why.
|Image from: WebProNews|
But I am getting ahead of myself, making ridiculous claims and attempting to inspire a sense of urgency when I have not yet explained what there is to be urgent about. The source of my concern is the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act, better known as CISPA. CISPA is the government’s latest attempt to infringe upon our rights and rob us of our privacy. Those of you who keep track of such things might remember the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), which gave the government the power to block any site that contained material in violation of copyright. Such an act would allow the government to block almost any site that relied upon user generated content as well as countless other sites. While SOPA is indeed far different than CISPA, it serves as the ideal example as to why we should care so much about the government’s interference online. Word of SOPA’s implications spread through the Internet like a wildfire. Users everywhere were speaking out against an act which would surely mark the end of free speech online. Wikimedia Foundation General Counsel Geoff Brigham declared the following in a post he made regarding his concerns. “SOPA represents the flawed proposition that censorship is an acceptable tool to protect rights owners' private interests in particular media. That is, SOPA would block entire foreign websites in the United States as a response to remove from sight select infringing material. “
|Wikipedia's Homepage During Operation Blackout|
Image from: membrane.com
It wasn’t long before sites like Wikipedia and Reddit began forming plans for an online protest in the form of a blackout. On January 18th, 2012, a multitude of websites blacked out their homepages, including a few lines of text explaining the dangers of SOPA and the need to take action. The blackout was an incredible display of the ability of users to come together and defend their rights. Unfortunately, not everyone was pleased with the protests. Free.com reports Former Sen. Chris Dodd, CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America, calling the protests "an abuse of power." ” ‘It’s a dangerous and troubling development when the platforms that serve as gateways to information intentionally skew the facts to incite their users in order to further their corporate interests,’ his statement said.” Despite the former senator’s view, the blackout was actually quite successful. It raised awareness of the act by a significant amount and contributed to several major companies withdrawal of support for the act.
Since SOPA’s eventual rejection, the sense of urgency felt by those participating in the blackout has begun to fade. A victory was won that day for Internet users worldwide. We had won the battle, but it was naïve to assume we had won the war. There is no clearer evidence of this than the presence of CISPA. CISPA looms over the Internet, darkening its future and the lives of its users. While such descriptions may seem a bit exaggerated, one need only examine the bill further to feel the icy realization of CISPA’s implications. The bill itself directly states that “[private information may be shared] notwithstanding any other provision of law.” In simpler terms, this means that CISPA is above any previously passed legislation that serves to protect one’s online privacy. If that does not send chills down your spine then I suggest you keep reading. A bill that can go above all others has serious implications for the public.
|Image from: cyberspying.eff.org|
I recently had the good fortune to come across an infographic which captured CISPA’s idea rather nicely. According to said infographic, CISPA means that “access to any information regarding a "cyber threat" is granted to the government, private security agencies, and private companies". To most people, such an explanation would not seem to be cause for concern. Who could argue with a government that simply wants to protect us from cyber threats? As wonderfully comforting as this sounds, the government has little interest in protecting us with this bill. CISPA defines a cyber threat as “efforts to degrade, disrupt, or destroy government or private systems and networks” as well as “theft or misappropriation of private or government information, intellectual property, or personally identifiable information.” Once again, such wording is intended to inspire confidence and reassure users that their best interests are being looked after. Upon closer inspection however, the bill’s transparency is all too obvious. One of the definitions for a cyber threat includes misappropriation of intellectual property. Once again we run into the same issue we had with SOPA. Intellectual property can mean anything from the picture I made in Photoshop to the idea for a website. Such a definition is vague and can be applied to almost anything.
I find it rather interesting how the government uses carefully crafted wording to entice us into believing that they are doing this for our own good. An article titled “When Network Neutrality Met Privacy” uses a phrase to describe attitudes towards net neutrality which I find to be appropriate in this instance as well. The author states, “Sometimes, they clothe these arguments in the language of “freedom,” but by this they usually mean a narrow, market-drenched conception of freedom.” The government follows a similar pattern by presenting potential laws in a so-called language of freedom, when their version of freedom is far more narrow and politically oriented than we would imagine.
Once a user has been flagged as a potential cyber threat, his data may then be shared with the government, private security agencies, and private companies. Any and all data concerning the user in question may be freely distributed under CISPA to help protect against a potential cyber threat. This makes it possible for Facebook and other sites to suddenly obtain considerable amounts of personal information about you that they otherwise would not be able to access. As if this wasn’t bad enough, under CISPA, if you are seen as a threat neither the government nor any private companies are obligated to notify you in any way. They are free to pass around the most sensitive data they have on you without so much as a courtesy email explaining why you are suddenly considered a threat to the nation. Also, if an error occurs and some of your information is misinterpreted or you are falsely accused of committing a cyber crime, you have absolutely no ability to take legal action. As stated before, you may not even know that you are being monitored for a crime in the first place.
Using the vague definitions outlined in the CISPA bill, the government and many private companies will be free to gain access to any and all information about you. If SOPA was the end of free speech on the Internet, then CISPA is the end of privacy on the Internet. It is at this time that I find the article “Communications Surveillance: Privacy and Security at Risk” ,by Whitfield Diffie and Susan Landau especially relevant. The authors conclude the article by stating, “The surveillance we are attempting to build may increase security in some ways, but it also creates serious risks in a network infrastructure that supports all of society.” I do not think that particular thought has ever been more relevant than it is now.
To borrow a term from George Orwell’s novel, 1984, it seems as if Big Brother truly is watching us. In 1984, Big Brother kept an eye on the people by watching them constantly through the telescreens each person was required to have in every room. These methods of constant surveillance and an all-knowing authority figure have long since been discussed in English classes as elements of fictional dystopian literature. It is time to stop viewing such things as fiction and face the facts. A bill like CISPA would essentially convert our computers into telescreens, allowing government officials and corporations to watch our every move. Big Brother is real, the government is striving every day to extend their power over us.
|Homepage for Fight Back With TMI|
Image from: congresstmi.org
Luckily, there is hope for Internet users yet. Though signs of a second blackout are nowhere to be seen, plans have been set in motion to protest CISPA. One such effort is based upon the idea to “Fight Back With TMI”. “TMI” being defined as “your inappropriate, awkward, often embarrassing personal details — the kind that the FBI, NSA, CIA, IRS, and local police will soon have access to if CISPA passes.” The basic premise of this movement is to send congress a barrage of very personal information that would potentially make them uncomfortable and embarrassed. The end goal is, of course, to make congress embarrassed of their support for CISPA and to hopefully rid the Internet of this distasteful bill.
Such online movements are often dismissed by users as being unlikely to succeed and therefore not worth their time. This is where they make a huge mistake. Whether a movement will succeed in preventing a bill from passing or not is irrelevant. Events like Operation Blackout and Fight Back With TMI serve to raise awareness of a very real threat to their rights. Part of the reason why it is so easy for the government to pass bills like this is because people are content to simply sit back and let it happen. It is far to difficult for us to go online and read up on a bill when we could be reading Reddit or playing Call of Duty instead. So we swallow whatever the government hands us and march in line like good citizens as our rights crumble around us. People have no idea of the power they poses and what they could do with that power. It is truly a sad day when it takes a group of hackers to show the public that the government just might not be perfect. To quote the infamous V from the film, V for Vendetta, “People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people. “ Use the power you have while you still have it. The government is already after freedom of speech, use it while it is still legal.
We may have beat SOPA, we may even beat CISPA, but what will come next? We cannot simply keep fighting these battles without realizing that they are a part of a larger war; a war on our rights. It is a war that knows no boundaries; every country that has access to the Internet is part of the same endless struggle. As I mentioned before, there are many times when we are all too happy to throw our support behind the government. Ever since the events of 9/11, the United States government has gone into full attack mode in regards to terrorists. Every move they make is to prevent terrorist attacks. It seems that the government need only hint at terrorists and voters are all to willing to vote yes without even reading the fine text. SOPA used piracy to seem noble and just, and now CISPA is claiming to prevent acts of cyber terrorism. Such bills may very well be able to impact terrorism’s presence in the U.S., but at what cost? What are you willing to give up in order to sleep better at night?
DIFFIE, WHITFIELD, and SUSAN LANDAU. "Communications Surveillance: Privacy And Security At Risk." Communications Of The ACM 52.11 (2009): 42-47. Business Source Complete. Web. 17 May 2012.
Ohm, Paul. "Viewpoint: When Network Neutrality Met Privacy." Communications Of The ACM 53.4 (2010): 30-32. Business Source Complete. Web. 17 May 2012.