Your History is Not Your History: Approaches to Monitoring the Web

Internet monitoring is becoming a greater and more invasive part of everyday life. It takes various forms in different countries, all with similar goals in mind; surveilling traffic and/or limiting access to topics a government might not want its citizens to be exposed to. In the People’s Republic of China, this takes form with the “Great Firewall,” a government created attempt to cut off access to non-Chinese websites as well as censor several topics to suite the government’s needs. In the United Kingdom, under Theresa May’s government, all internet history can now be accessed by the government. In the United States, recent legislature will allow private ISPs (internet service providers) once again to sell internet users’ histories without their consent. This arises from the economic benefits of being able to track user histories, which in turn necessitate a more refined understanding of individual computer data. On a local level, concerns over internet privacy have cropped up with Portland Police Department’s monitoring of social media. Internet privacy is a uniquely complicated issue; how can we simultaneously be protected and our privacy rights be violated at the same time? There are legitimate security concerns that need to be addressed within the confines of the internet, yet at the same time, should an individual have a right to privacy within a grey area where public and private blend?

When comparing different strategies to monitor internet usage, the sheer scale of the “Great Firewall” of China is staggering. This should come as no surprise in a country with little respect for civil liberties. After implementation, the Great Firewall was mainly used to block sites such as YouTube, Western social media, and cut off access to certain Google searches (if you were to investigate the Tiananmen Square Massacre, you would find nothing). As technological understanding improved, engineers were able to improve the system, “often (aiming) to minimize not the censorship itself but the sense of being censored.”1 As time progressed, the Chinese government quickly addressed new concerns, blocking access to specific sites, and as of January 2016, officially cracked down on the use of VPNs (virtual private networks).

One option for internet privacy, VPNs, allow internet users to bounce their connection to the internet to another country, perhaps on the other side of the world, as to prevent exact monitoring of location through the internet, allow access to blocked sites, and create anonymity on the web. In a nation such as China, this is instrumental for individuals who wish to access the “world wide web” as opposed to the strictly regulated Chinese version of the web. Anyone with lukewarm allegiance to the communist regime would benefit greatly from being able to access non-Chinese media, or sites already blocked by the government. Not only this, those who experience internet freedom after living inside the Great Firewall, like Murong Xuecun, are opened to information that places the government’s actions into perspective (Truly worth a read).2 Until recently, this strategy was not a major concern of the government; hardly enough internet users accessed VPNs to justify a major crackdown. In January of 2016, this relative tolerance officially ended when the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology announced a “campaign aimed at “cleaning up” the internet (which) would last till Mar. 31, 2018.”3 One can only imagine what “cleaning up” entails for those caught using VPNs.

Closer to home, the United Kingdom’s Investigatory Powers Act, passed in early 2017, will “cement ten years of illegal surveillance into law.”4 The British government will have near-unlimited access to the collective internet history of its population, be able to hack into “devices and networks outside the UK,” and even those within.5 This intrusion is more widespread than the United States Patriot Act’s and more insidious. While the Patriot Act was revised to only allow access to phone records with a court order, the Investigatory Powers Act does not even bother with that formality. This is a regression to tactics used by governments long before they were discovered by Edward Snowden. Not only this, however, it is a blatant disregard for the rights citizens have come to expect.

Here at home, As of April 3rd, 2017, regulations that would have required internet service providers (ISPs) to obtain consent before selling user histories were removed. While these regulations that were created at the tail end of the Obama administration never took effect, the fight for net neutrality rages on. According to three of the major ISPs, none have any intention of selling user histories. All three released statements similar to Comcast’s, which claims they “would continue to abide by its privacy policy, which allows customers to opt out of receiving targeted ads.”6 This sounds wonderful, yet not having protection by law means these companies can revert course whenever the price for user history becomes large enough.

In the case of Britain and China it is the government that is responsible for intrusions. But in our case, it could very well be corporations who gain access to our web history. Websites or search engines such as Google and Facebook have all had similar powers to monitor usage but “ISPs now have this power too, except they have one huge advantage: they don’t have to get you to log or opt into anything.”7 Because ISPs are at the very core of the infrastructure of the internet, they do not have to pull any punches. ISPs act as if allowing customers to opt out of targeted ads is the solution to this issue. The question should arise; what right do ISPs have to sell user history in the first place? While consumers are purchasing a service, without proper regulations, ISPs can manipulate and force more and more invasive policy onto a service that is quickly becoming a necessity. Access to the internet has become one of the most vital resources a nation can have. By allowing corporations to control the infrastructure that provides it, the product itself can exploit consumers.

At the local level, Maine has been exposed to policy allowing internet surveillance. The Portland Police Department began using an application called Geofeedia in 2014, with news of this use only being brought to light in November of 2016. This application allows a user to monitor the locations of people who enter keywords on social media. The police in Portland have been using this tool to find people who enter keywords such as “gun” or “suicide,” with mostly false positives.8 The use of this program is rather contentious, as the police claim to be listening in on a public forum. Here arises the question of how public a website truly is. Social media is accessible to people given permission by a user, making one ask, do the police have a right to see posts on these websites if they are not given permission to do so? The notion that police have a right to access a “public” forum is in line with the logic of ISPs, who assume they have the right to sell a user’s history because they provide a “service.” Just like policing is a necessity, the internet is being used as an excuse to reach into the personal sphere of citizens.

Clearly, the issues of privacy on the internet and national security are being addressed by each nation and at differing levels of government. It is important to note why the need for this arises. Obviously, an unmonitored internet is a dangerous one, but the brunt of internet access is not to areas of the web that are suspect or illegal. In fact, the real places where illegal activity occurs are essentially unmonitorable. The “Darknet” is an area of the internet not readily accessible to the vast majority of internet users, and incredibly difficult for governments to penetrate (a simplification). Whereas legislation such as the Investigatory Act in the United Kingdom and the USA Patriot Act are designed to monitor data to find potential hostile actors, the legislation is ineffective, intrusive and most importantly, aimed at the wrong people. There is also concern as to the rights of corporations to monitor internet history and user data. It is in essence a two-front struggle between internet users, the government, and ISPs. To top this all off, the internet is considered a public forum, yet there are sites designed for semi-private postings, or at least postings only visible to people a user gives permission to. As a result, claiming that police or other agencies have a right to observe data on these sites is a very vague grey area legally and ethically.

“Your History is Not Your History: Approaches to Monitoring the Web” was written by Dakota Gramour, a second year history and international affairs double major at the University of Maine. 
[1] “The art of concealment.” The Economist. April 06, 2013. Accessed April 15, 2017. http://www.economist.com/news/special-report/21574631-chinese-screening-online-material-abroad-becoming-ever-more-sophisticated.

2 Xuecun, Murong. “Scaling China’s Great Firewall.” The New York Times. August 17, 2015. Accessed February 25, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/18/opinion/murong-xuecun-scaling-chinas-great-firewall.html.

3 Ming, Cheang. “China’s Great Firewall is doubling up on VPN regulation.” CNBC. February 07, 2017. Accessed April 9, 2017. http://www.cnbc.com/2017/01/24/chinas-great-firewall-is-doubling-up-on-vpn-regulation.html.

4 Killock, Jim. “The IP Act: UK’s most extreme surveillance law.” Al Jazeera English. December 02, 2016. Accessed March 18, 2017. http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2016/12/ip-act-uk-extreme-surveillance-law-161201141317587.html.

5 Ibid.

6 Pressman, Aaron. “What Happens After Online Privacy Rules Are Cancelled.” Fortune.com. April 03, 2017. Accessed April 15, 2017. http://fortune.com/2017/04/03/fcc-online-privacy-faq/.

7 McCarthy, Kieren. “Your internet history on sale to highest bidder: US Congress votes to shred ISP privacy rules.” The Register. March 28, 2017. Accessed April 14, 2017. https://www.theregister.co.uk/2017/03/28/congress_approves_sale_of_internet_histories/.

8 Bleiberg, Jake. “Maine police using a controversial tool to monitor what you say online.” Bangor Daily News. November 30, 2016. Accessed March 18, 2017. http://bangordailynews.com/2016/11/30/news/portland/maine-police-department-has-been-using-a-controversial-tool-to-monitor-what-you-say-online/.

Stefano Tijerina

About Stefano Tijerina

My name is Stefano Tijerina and this blog’s objective is to connect Maine’s social, environmental, economic, cultural, and political issues to the global system, centering on how the local impacts the global and how the global impacts the local or what is known in Global Studies as the "Glocal" effect. In our present era of globalization it is crucial for the general public to understand how the new dynamics of the international system impact our lives here in Maine and how our local decisions impact the earth.