Why Internet surveillance will never work

Government monitoring of Internet traffic would snare everyone but the cyber criminals

Few tech subjects get as much attention from governments as content filtering and data collection. All over the world, it seems, governments want to make sure that they know what the general public is doing on the Internet, and they want to keep that information to themselves for their own purposes. Turn on the news, and you're almost guaranteed to learn about some new government scheme to clamp down on the Internet.

We read about how the IRS believes it has the right to read your email. We discover huge data mining operations in place in the United States with the purpose of collecting as much data as possible from Internet traffic. We hear about how legislators want to protect us from ourselves by banning pornography from the Internet or public Internet connections. We see horrible ideas like CISPA pop up like a Hydra, even though few legislators are really aware of what they're voting for.

[ Cash in on your IT stories! Send your IT tales to offtherecord@infoworld.com. If we publish it, we'll keep you anonymous and send you a $50 American Express gift cheque. | Get the latest practical data center advice and info in Matt Prigge's Information Overload blog and InfoWorld's Data Center newsletter. ]

The focus, the means, and the impetus vary wildly, from "child-safe" filtering at the ISP level on a broadband connection to the great firewall of China. Where once upon a time we were overjoyed to transmit any and all data around the globe reliably, now we're seemingly in a rush to hobble those data paths under the guise of protection. (NB: Protection for and from whom varies by country, YMMV.)

In and of itself, filtering isn't a terrible idea. Providing a means to limit access of certain adult content by children is a worthy ideal, and there are ways to provide that protection that do not require massive deep packet inspection installations at NOCs around the globe. I'm not going to Godwin my own column, but let's just say there's an interesting quote about just this situation from a certain mid-20th century madman.

The raw, blatant fact of the matter is that NOC and government-level content filters do not and cannot work reliably or sustainably without curtailing the use of the Internet to a trickle. The methods of evading content filters and data collection are many and diverse, from Tor to VPNs, darknets, and the Deep Web. The inevitable result of such filters is that anyone intent on evading them will find it exceedingly simple, while the overwhelming majority of Internet users will have unwittingly allowed their information to be retained by any number of sniffers along the way.

To put it as simply as possible, those who need to evade a content filter or data collector will do so successfully. Legislation like CISPA does nothing more than impede normal, legal information sharing, and allows for unprecedented violation of privacy. As a very minor example, think about the fact that language that would prevent an employer from requiring you to divulge your email and social media passwords was struck from the bill.

1 2 Page 1
Page 1 of 2
InfoWorld Technology of the Year Awards 2023. Now open for entries!