frontline issue 4


After S-11: Now Big Brother is REALLY watching you

Alister Black looks at the consequences for Internet users of the September 11th bombings

The bombings in America on September 11th caused chaos on the internet. The immediate consequence was that 80% of the web shut down. Servers were overloaded as everyone tried to get online at the same time to find out what was going on.

Days later large chunks of the web were still down, in some cases simply because Internet Service Provider (ISP) workers could not get into their New York offices to reboot servers. But there are other consequences. One of these is that the gloves have come off in the battle for cyberspace.

Cyber Warfare

Recent world events have demonstrated how the internet can become an arena for conflict. The Balkans War and the capture of a US spyplane in China both saw hackers for both sides go into action.

The aims varied from simply hacking an opposition website to serious attempts to bring down networks and hinder military and civilian operations. Web sites such as the White House site found their home pages replaced with Chinese flags and nationalistic messages. Viruses of Chinese origin swept across the internet weeks after the actual crisis itself had ended. Some of these caused serious damage as scripts left as part of these attacks wiped data on servers.

The September 11th crisis has seen similar attacks. This time American hackers have attacked sites they perceive to be hostile to the USA. Palestinian sites were especially targetted. A week after the bombing a new virus w32.nimda emerged, thought to be the work of US hackers to attack perceived opponents of the US on the 'net. But more thoughtful and organised hackers have condemned 'cyberwar'. The German based Chaos Computer Club said in a press release 'DO NOT support any acts of 'Cyberwar.' Keep the networks of communication alive. They are the nervous system for human progress.'

Many of those who would normally oppose any restrictions of online freedom have buckled in the face of the current situation. This has made it easier for the US security services and world allies to implement new methods of monitoring e-mail communications. Foremost among these are Echelon and Carnivore.

Echelon and Carnivore

Echelon is a global eavesdropping system that monitorscommunications including e-mail, at random, for certain keywords. The EU recently investigated Echelon because of suspicion that it was being used for commercial espionage

Carnivore is a 'black box' that the FBI can install at an ISP. It monitors the e-mail and other electronic communications of suspects. But what is not clear is how widespread this surveillance is. Already a number of the largest ISPs, collectively covering nearly 40 million users, have confirmed that they are assisting the FBI. The FBI have been vague about how Carnivore works and have refused to provide the source code. So we don't know how much information is being gathered or what is being done with it. Activists should also bear in mind that most e-mail groups such as yahoo and Topica store their mail on US based servers.

Carnivore is however not effective against encrypted e-mail. Sending normal e-mail is like sending a postcard through the mail - anyone can read it. Encrypted mail is the equivalent of using an envelope. Not invulnerable but an improvement. Commonly used programs include Pretty Good Privacy (PGP)

One country is unlikely to be affected by any of this - Afghanistan. Besides its extensive poverty the Taleban recently made the internet illegal.