Security

Web inventor Berners-Lee: The hidden cost of mass surveillance

The creator of the World Wide Web Sir Tim Berners-Lee said people must demand governments stop mass surveillance online.

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Sir Tim Berners-Lee said "You should be able to look up something sensitive without the feeling that someone is looking over your shoulder."
Image: World Wide Web Consortium

The creator of the world wide web Sir Tim Berners-Lee has called on the people of the world to demand their governments end mass surveillance online.

Berners-Lee was speaking at the launch of a report that found the majority of countries worldwide have weak or non-existent laws to protect citizens' privacy.

The interception of vast quantities of domestic internet traffic by UK and US security agencies, as disclosed by the US whistleblower Edward Snowden, is a situation that can't be allowed to continue, Berners-Lee told TechRepublic.

"We shouldn't just settle for assuming that our private data will be tracked, we should insist on the right for our privacy to be respected," he said, adding that mass surveillance will change people's behaviour online.

"Government spying is more insidious than censorship. You should be able to look up something sensitive without the feeling that someone is looking over your shoulder."

Laws to safeguard privacy were judged weak to non-existent in more than 84 percent of the 86 countries examined by examined by The World Wide Web Foundation for this year's Web Index report. The proportion failing in this way increased from 63 percent in last year's report.

Rules protecting privacy in the UK, US, Australia, Canada and France were reckoned to be no more effective than those in China, Russia and Turkey. In fact, all eight countries scored below three out of 10 for safeguarding privacy.

"Part of this shift in scores can be explained by the fact that we now know a lot more about what governments are getting up to. Much new information has come to light in the past year about the ability of state and intelligence actors to circumvent due process and the rule of law, even where such safeguards are nominally on the books," the report states.

"However, there is also evidence that due process safeguards for citizens are being progressively dismantled - even as the capability and appetite of governments to spy on us is expanding."

The Web Index report cited various examples of countries taking legal steps to weaken privacy safeguards and expand state surveillance powers over the past year, including:

  • France passing a law which gives a wide range of agencies the power to snoop on internet users in real-time without prior judicial authorisation.
  • The UK, rushing through parliament the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill (DRIP), which significantly enhances the powers of the security services.
  • The Australian government passed a bill which will enable the entire web to be monitored using just a single warrant.
  • South Africa authorised warrantless tapping of "foreign" Internet traffic.

"Worryingly, the tendency seems to be towards bulk collection of data in secret and by default, raising the spectre of the Web becoming established as a tool for pervasive surveillance," the report said.

Berners-Lee stressed the need for oversight of online surveillance.

"If you give someone a very strong power you need a way to make sure that power is proportionate to the threat. Even if it is a proportionate power, you need counter agencies to watch the watchers and spy on the spies, and report back to the people and judiciary."

More data requests

Firms are facing increasing demands for user data. In the first six months of this year Twitter reported a 78 percent increase in requests for user data compared to the same period one year before; Google, a 14 percent increase and Facebook, a 30 percent increase. Meanwhile, Microsoft reported 30 percent growth in the number of accounts affected by secret US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) requests between 2011 and 2013, while Yahoo said it was "troubled" by a 67 percent increase in accounts subject to FISA orders between the first and last half of 2013.

The extent of data shared by these companies will be wider in reality, as many countries - including the UK, Germany and the Netherlands - forbid companies from disclosing full figures about the number of such requests they receive from government.

Online censorship is also on the rise, according to the report, with moderate or extensive web censorship seen in 38 percent of countries over the past year.

Berners-Lee once again spoke of the need for a bill of rights for the internet, to create an "understanding about what are the basic freedoms we want" online, and which could be upheld by law. The report points to Brazil's Marco Civil law, which enshrines a right to privacy, as setting an example to other countries in the world.

As internet connectivity and sensors are built into more everyday objects, the advent of the so-called Internet of Things (IoT), there is the need to protect that data from intrusion as readily as other personal information Berners-Lee said.

He advocates the creation of data stores that aggregate personal data from a person's computer, phones, house and car and is under the control of the individual rather than a company.

As well as detailing the extent of online surveillance, the Web Index report also looked at the web's contribution to social, economic and political progress worldwide.

The report also found that the web and social media are making a major contribution to sparking citizen action in three in five of the countries studied, that true net neutrality remains a rarity, that online threats against women are not being tackled effectively and that almost two thirds of the world's population can't get online.

About Nick Heath

Nick Heath is chief reporter for TechRepublic. He writes about the technology that IT decision makers need to know about, and the latest happenings in the European tech scene.

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