US plans Big Brother web monitoring system

23 Dec 2002

The Bush Administration is planning to introduce a centralised internet monitoring system that would potentially allow federal employees to intercept the private electronic data of businesses and citizens across the world.

The initiative is one element of the US government’s efforts to increase national security in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Although such a system would be technically challenging to execute, it could be done, according to Cormac Callanan, chairman of the Irish Internet Service Providers’ Association of Ireland (ISPAI).

“If you look at the internet, it’s a lot less distributed that it used to be. You might not be able to monitor 100pc of the world wide web but you could certainly reach a very high percentage,” he says.

There are, he adds, known to be at least 25 technology companies around the world specialising in the data interception area and which are selling hardware and software systems to governments around the world.

Moreover, such a system would not be unprecedented. The FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) already has an internet wiretap system in place called Echelon which, though smaller in scale than the proposed system, fulfils the same function: interception of internet traffic. Echelon was set up as a replacement for a similar system, Carnivore, which was dismantled in response to internet privacy concerns, but is believed to have much the same abilities to intercept data.

Earlier this year, the European Union wrote a paper that analysed the Echelon system and concluded that it would be very possible to create a system that monitored all internet activity from a central point.

Callanan believes that the existence of such systems should be of concern to ordinary people but also to businesses which often send commercially sensitive information unencrypted across the internet. “Very few people use encryption technology even though it’s been available for years,” he observes.

He thinks that if the Irish Government were to introduce an internet monitoring system there would be an outcry but in the US the levels of concern are much lower and data privacy does not rate as a major issue for most people. “There’s no data protection in the US; they don’t have the concept. Once you log on to an internet service provider (ISP) you’ve no rights,” says Callanan.

However, since details of the new system have come to light, some US ISPs have expressed concerns about its data privacy implications as well as their own corporate liability were one their customers found to be engaged in illegal activity.

The proposed web monitoring system is being researched for an upcoming report by President Bush’s Critical Infrastructure Protection Board. The proposal would be subject to regulatory and Congressional approval.

By Brian Skelly