Book Review: The Internet Police

February 2, 2014
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The Internet Police by Nate Anderson – W.W. Norton & Co. (ISBN#0393062988)

Nate Anderson’s The Internet Police is a giddily good read. A sort of urgent, right-now comprehensive history of various governments’ attempts to entrap the online universe in a giant, pliant mason jar, Anderson’s timing is about as relevant and fortunate as it could possibly get. Welcome to the paranoid summer! A day before I read this shocker, Edward Snowden, an ex-U.S. government contractor who dared to leak information concerning the National Security Agency and the C.I.A.’s secretive surveillance programs to British newspaper The Guardian, was gifted temporary asylum in Moscow by Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Weeks later, as I write, Bradley Manning, a U.S. military private who gifted a treasure-trove of government data to an anarchic one-worldist Website called WikiLeaks, was convicted of espionage. Condemned to spend most of his natural life in jail, he, like Snowden, is a hero to some and a sort of nihilist to others. Conservatives call them both traitors, but it’s all too complicated to be simplified into a category like traitor.

Informed by the giant media machine that we are, all of us, being spied on, most of us shrug. According to the more immediate surveys by the likes of Time and Germany’s Der Spiegel, only between 35-39 percent of us “disapprove of it.”

Anderson’s book doesn’t touch on Snowden. He opens with Sealand, in the year 2000, “a rusting North Sea naval fort seven miles off the English coast,” where paranoids and libertarians formed a sort of Utopia where any Tom, Dick or Harry could store data without fear of government intrusion. This brave startup, HavenCo, failed, quickly ruined by a heavy-handed interdiction from both Britain’s MI-5 and MI-6 and their friends in internal revenue. But HavenCo spawned other entities such as MegaUpload and Silk Road, dedicated to letting people do anything a free society allows them to do – swap pirated movies, ultra hard-core porn, recipes for the manufacture of illegal drugs and bombs – all thanks to the marvel of cyberspace.

The Internet Police

This spawned an apparatus meant to monitor and control this neo-Tombstone of the 21st century. All police forces in Europe and North America and Mexico allied to confiscate computers and track down errant IP addresses with a view toward breaking up child pornography rings, a worldwide trade by Albanian organized criminals in kidnapped women and organized terrorists.  All well and good we might collectively say, but somehow record companies got involved by suing students and various other small fry for bootlegging intellectual property. Meanwhile, the U.S. Congress passed laws against spammers; the FBI, The Deuxieme Bureau and Special Branch build tools to eavesdrop on Internet activity.  Shutting down petty intellectual property bootleggers is one thing, but the Internet proves to be relentlessly unstoppable. Like a game of whack-a-mole, once one ‘threat’ gets its head cut off, up pops another. For governments it’s a wake-up call. The public likes keeping their data secret and getting its entertainment for free. There’s larceny in us all, it seems, especially when we see governments turning a blind eye to the stealing of intellectual property throughout the rest of the world.

Anderson does a superb job, with lots of superbly apt anecdotes of categorizing the positive and negative factors of both ‘sides.’ While governments, police and secret-police forces own a mission to keep us all safe and free, they more than occasionally test or overstep boundaries. Atypically, they censor material protected by free-speech laws, or invade the privacy of people innocent of any real crime because of their periphery to the ‘guilty.’ From a libertarian point of view, most hackers and programmers build software which helps people protect and share data for noble reasons, but which is inevitably also bound to be appropriated by spammers, dope dealers or worse.

“We need the Internet police,” Anderson concludes, “but we need to keep a close eye on them – and on their tools.”

A senior editor at Ars Technica, Anderson clearly shows how sophisticated criminals have moved their business from the physical world to the amorphous. Anderson takes readers into the Wild West of the digital world. How violations big and small are carried out: from bigoted emails to brazen online drug markets and file-sharing networks which destroy copyright status, it seems everything, including the time-space continuum, really is up for grabs. Landmark digital cases (like the RIAA’s wave of infringement lawsuits) lead to questions about the future of civil liberties.  There are no professional gatekeepers as of yet. Centralized surveillance is therefore impossible because so many countries with differing legal systems are involved.

Early spammers were easy to block, but soon learned to arrange for multiple contingency-servers, switching from one to another after any unit in use was blocked. Then came real-time black-hole spam-producer lists, used by numerous subscribers. The next development was the use of ‘open relays’ – servers that accepted messages from any machine, instead of just registered members, and forwarded them to any other server. Hundreds of thousands of IT administrators made this error and it took years to overcome the problem. These Spam War episodes take place now, and they’ve been going on since 2003 and the onset of Ratware to now.

Most of us are ignorant of just how prevalent cyber crime really is. That is probably for the best, actually, because there’s nothing much a regular Joe can do about it. Finally, in the realm of illicit products vended via the Internet, Anderson reports a dare by various geek amigos where he is tasked with finding a heroin source. It takes him less than five minutes to locate, and ultimately involves servers in the U.S., the U.K., Germany, Switzerland, and India. This so-called narcotics ‘Silk Road’ site operates brazenly by accepting no cash or credit, relying cleverly on anonymous, encrypted digital currency (Bitcoin), and allows prospective buyers to encrypt their mailing addresses while providing a number of links to alternate routing servers and services. Yes, you should be scared, very scared! 

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  1. Sounds very interesting. Will look to download this on my kindle. I definitely agree with the comments about Snowden and Manning. It is impossible to group them under either traitor or hero.

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