Computer and network surveillance

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This article is about monitoring of computer and network activity. For information on methods of preventing unauthorized access to computer data, see computer security.
Main article: Surveillance

Computer and network surveillance is the monitoring of computer activity and data stored on a hard drive, or data being transferred over computer networks such as the Internet. The monitoring is often carried out covertly and may be completed by, or at the behest of, governments, by corporations, criminal organizations, or individuals. It may or may not be legal and may or may not require authorization from a court or other independent government agency.

Computer and network surveillance programs are widespread today and almost all Internet traffic is, or could potentially be, monitored for clues to illegal activity.[1]

Surveillance is useful in that it allows governments and other agencies to maintain social control, recognize and monitor threats, as well as prevent and investigate criminal activity. With the advent of programs such as the Total Information Awareness program, technologies such as high speed surveillance computers and biometrics software, and laws such as the Communications Assistance For Law Enforcement Act, governments now possess an unprecedented ability to monitor the activities of citizens.[2]

However, many civil rights and privacy groups, such as Reporters Without Borders, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the American Civil Liberties Union, have expressed concern that with ever increasing surveillance of citizens we will end up in a mass surveillance society, with limited political and/or personal freedoms. Fears such as this have led to numerous lawsuits such as Hepting v. AT&T.[2][3] The hacktivist group Anonymous has hacked into government websites in protest of what it considers "draconian surveillance".[4][5]

Network surveillance[edit]

The vast majority of computer surveillance involves the monitoring of data and traffic on the Internet.[6] For example, in the United States, the Communications Assistance For Law Enforcement Act, mandates that all phone calls and broadband internet traffic (emails, web traffic, instant messaging, etc.) be available for unimpeded, real-time monitoring by Federal law enforcement agencies.[7][8][9]

Packet capture (also known as “packet sniffing”) is the monitoring of data traffic on a computer network.[10] Computers communicate over the Internet by breaking up messages (emails, web pages, files, etc.) into small chunks called "packets", which are routed through a network of computers, until they reach their destination, where they are assembled back into a complete "message" again. A Packet Capture Appliance intercepts these packets as they are travelling through the network, so that they may be examined and analyzed by independent programs. Such other programs are needed to perform traffic analysis and sift through intercepted data so to look for important/useful information. Under the Communications Assistance For Law Enforcement Act, all U.S. telecommunications providers are required to install such packet capture technology so that Federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies to intercept all of their customers' broadband Internet and voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) traffic.[11]

There is far too much data gathered by these packet sniffers for human investigators to manually search through. Thus, automated Internet surveillance computers sift through the vast amount of intercepted Internet traffic, filtering out,[12] and reporting to investigators those bits of information which are "interesting". For example, the use of certain words or phrases, visiting certain types of web sites, or communicating via email or chat with a certain individual or group.[13] Billions of dollars per year are spent by agencies such as the Information Awareness Office, NSA, and the FBI, for the development, purchase, implementation, and operation of systems which intercept and analyze this data, extracting only the information that is useful to law enforcement and intelligence agencies.[14]

Similar systems are now used by Iranian secret police to identify and suppress dissidents. All of the technology has been allegedly installed by German Siemens AG and Finnish Nokia.[15]

The rapid development of the Internet has led to it being increasingly used as a means of communication. Therefore, more people are potentially subject to surveillance through Internet monitoring. There is both a positive and a negative side to such Internet surveillance. For instance, systems described as “Web 2.0”[16] have had a great impact on modern society. Large social media platforms, such as YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, enable people to keep in daily contact with friends, family and even with strangers. Tim O’ Reilly, who first mentioned the concept of “Web 2.0”,[16] stated that Web 2.0 provides communication platforms that were “user generated”, with self-produced content, giving people more initiative for increased communication with friends.[17] However, Network surveillance also plays a negative role in society. For instance, one researcher from Uppsala University stated that “Web 2.0 surveillance is directed at large user groups who help to hegemonically produce and reproduce surveillance by providing user-generated (self-produced) content. We can therefore characterize Web 2.0 surveillance as mass self-surveillance”.[18] People are being monitored while they are being entertained. Not only are they under surveillance by others, but they also supervise themselves. This may cause personal psychological issues, such as jealousy. One research group states that “...we set out to test the prediction that feelings of jealousy lead to ‘creeping’ on a partner through Facebook, and that women are particularly likely to engage in partner monitoring in response to jealousy”.[19] The study shows that women in particular may feel jealousy of others when they are a member of a Network group.

Corporate surveillance[edit]

Corporate surveillance of computer activity is very common. The data collected is most often used for marketing purposes or sold to other corporations, but is also regularly shared with government agencies. It can be used as a form of business intelligence, which enables the corporation to better tailor their products and/or services to be desirable by their customers. Or the data can be sold to other corporations, so that they can use it for the aforementioned purpose. Or it can be used for direct marketing purposes, such as targeted advertisements, where ads are targeted to the user of the search engine by analyzing their search history and emails[20] (if they use free webmail services), which is kept in a database.[21]

One important component of prevention is establishing the business purposes of monitoring, which may include the following: Preventing misuse of resources. Companies can discourage unproductive personal activities such as online shopping or web surfing on company time. Monitoring employee performance is one way to reduce unnecessary network traffic and reduce the consumption of network bandwidth. Promoting adherence to policies. Online surveillance is one means of verifying employee observance of company networking policies. Preventing lawsuits. Firms can be held liable for discrimination or employee harassment in the workplace. Organizations can also be involved in infringement suits through employees that distribute copyrighted material over corporate networks. Safeguarding records. Federal legislation requires organizations to protect personal information. Monitoring can determine the extent of compliance with company policies and programs overseeing information security. Monitoring may also deter unlawful appropriation of personal information, and potential spam or viruses. Safeguarding company assets. The protection of intellectual property, trade secrets, and business strategies is a major concern. The ease of information transmission and storage makes it imperative to monitor employee actions as part of a broader policy. A second component of prevention is determining the ownership of technology resources. The ownership of the firm’s networks, servers, computers, files, and e-mail should be explicitly stated. There should be a distinction between an employee’s personal electronic devices, which should be limited and proscribed, and those owned by the firm.

For instance, Google, the world's most popular search engine, stores identifying information for each web search. An IP address and the search phrase used are stored in a database for up to 18 months.[22] Google also scans the content of emails of users of its Gmail webmail service, in order to create targeted advertising based on what people are talking about in their personal email correspondences.[23] Google is, by far, the largest Internet advertising agency—millions of sites place Google's advertising banners and links on their websites, in order to earn money from visitors who click on the ads. Each page containing Google advertisements adds, reads, and modifies "cookies" on each visitor's computer.[24] These cookies track the user across all of these sites, and gather information about their web surfing habits, keeping track of which sites they visit, and what they do when they are on these sites. This information, along with the information from their email accounts, and search engine histories, is stored by Google to use to build a profile of the user to deliver better-targeted advertising.[23]

The United States government often gains access to these databases, either by producing a warrant for it, or by simply asking. The Department of Homeland Security has openly stated that it uses data collected from consumer credit and direct marketing agencies for augmenting the profiles of individuals that it is monitoring.[21]

Malicious software[edit]

For a more detailed discussion of topics mentioned in this section see: Spyware, Computer virus, Trojan (computer security), Keylogger, Backdoor (computing)

In addition to monitoring information sent over a computer network, there is also a way to examine data stored on a computer's hard drive, and to monitor the activities of a person using the computer. A surveillance program installed on a computer can search the contents of the hard drive for suspicious data, can monitor computer use, collect passwords, and/or report back activities in real-time to its operator through the Internet connection.[25] Keylogger is an example of this type of program. Normal keylogging programs store their data on the local hard drive, but some are programmed to automatically transmit data over the network to a remote computer or Web server.

There are multiple ways of installing such software. The most common is remote installation, using a backdoor created by a computer virus or trojan. This tactic has the advantage of potentially subjecting multiple computers to surveillance. Viruses often spread to thousands or millions of computers, and leave "backdoors" which are accessible over a network connection, and enable an intruder to remotely install software and execute commands. These viruses and trojans are sometimes developed by government agencies, such as CIPAV and Magic Lantern. More often, however, viruses created by other people or spyware installed by marketing agencies can be used to gain access through the security breaches that they create.[26]

Another method is "cracking" into the computer to gain access over a network. An attacker can then install surveillance software remotely. Servers and computers with permanent broadband connections are most vulnerable to this type of attack.[27] Another source of security cracking is employees giving out information or users using brute force tactics to guess their password.[28]

One can also physically place surveillance software on a computer by gaining entry to the place where the computer is stored and install it from a compact disc, floppy disk, or thumbdrive. This method shares a disadvantage with hardware devices in that it requires physical access to the computer.[29] One well-known worm that uses this method of spreading itself is Stuxnet.[30]

Social network analysis[edit]

One common form of surveillance is to create maps of social networks based on data from social networking sites as well as from traffic analysis information from phone call records such as those in the NSA call database,[31] and internet traffic data gathered under CALEA. These social network "maps" are then data mined to extract useful information such as personal interests, friendships & affiliations, wants, beliefs, thoughts, and activities.[32][33][34]

Many U.S. government agencies such as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the National Security Agency (NSA), and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) are currently investing heavily in research involving social network analysis.[35][36] The intelligence community believes that the biggest threat to the U.S. comes from decentralized, leaderless, geographically dispersed groups. These types of threats are most easily countered by finding important nodes in the network, and removing them. To do this requires a detailed map of the network.[34][37]

Jason Ethier of Northeastern University, in his study of modern social network analysis, said the following of the Scalable Social Network Analysis Program developed by the Information Awareness Office:

The purpose of the SSNA algorithms program is to extend techniques of social network analysis to assist with distinguishing potential terrorist cells from legitimate groups of people ... In order to be successful SSNA will require information on the social interactions of the majority of people around the globe. Since the Defense Department cannot easily distinguish between peaceful citizens and terrorists, it will be necessary for them to gather data on innocent civilians as well as on potential terrorists.

—Jason Ethier[34]

Monitoring from a distance[edit]

It has been shown that it is possible to monitor computers from a distance, with only commercially available equipment, by detecting the radiation emitted by the CRT monitor. This form of computer surveillance, known as TEMPEST, involves reading electromagnetic emanations from computing devices in order to extract data from them at distances of hundreds of meters.[38][39][40]

IBM researchers have also found that, for most computer keyboards, each key emits a slightly different noise when pressed. The differences are individually identifiable under some conditions, and so it's possible to log key strokes without actually requiring logging software to run on the associated computer.[41][42]

And it has also been shown, by Adi Shamir et al., that even the high frequency noise emitted by a CPU includes information about the instructions being executed.[43]

Policeware and govware[edit]

Policeware is software designed to police citizens by monitoring discussion and interaction of its citizens.[44] Within the U.S., Carnivore was a first incarnation of secretly installed e-mail monitoring software installed in Internet service providers' networks to log computer communication, including transmitted e-mails.[45] Magic Lantern is another such application, this time running in a targeted computer in a trojan style and performing keystroke logging. CIPAV, deployed by FBI, is a multi-purpose spyware/trojan.

The "Consumer Broadband and Digital Television Promotion Act" (CBDTA) was a bill proposed in the United States Congress. CBDTPA was known as the "Security Systems and Standards Certification Act" (SSSCA) while in draft form, and was killed in committee in 2002. Had CBDTPA become law, it would have prohibited technology that could be used to read digital content under copyright (such as music, video, and e-books) without Digital Rights Management (DRM) that prevented access to this material without the permission of the copyright holder.[46]

In German-speaking countries, spyware used or made by the government is sometimes called govware.[47] Some countries like Switzerland and Germany have a legal framework governing the use of such software.[48][49] Known examples include the Swiss MiniPanzer and MegaPanzer and the German R2D2 (trojan).

Surveillance as an aid to censorship[edit]

Surveillance and censorship are different. Surveillance can be performed without censorship, but it is harder to engage in censorship without some form of surveillance.[50] And even when surveillance does not lead directly to censorship, the widespread knowledge or belief that a person, their computer, or their use of the Internet is under surveillance can lead to self-censorship.[51]

In March 2013 Reporters Without Borders issued a Special report on Internet surveillance that examines the use of technology that monitors online activity and intercepts electronic communication in order to arrest journalists, citizen-journalists, and dissidents. The report includes a list of "State Enemies of the Internet", Bahrain, China, Iran, Syria, and Vietnam, countries whose governments are involved in active, intrusive surveillance of news providers, resulting in grave violations of freedom of information and human rights. Computer and network surveillance is on the increase in these countries. The report also includes a second list of "Corporate Enemies of the Internet", Amesys (France), Blue Coat Systems (U.S.), Gamma (UK and Germany), Hacking Team (Italy), and Trovicor (Germany), companies that sell products that are liable to be used by governments to violate human rights and freedom of information. Neither list is exhaustive and they are likely to be expanded in the future.[52]

Protection of sources is no longer just a matter of journalistic ethics; it increasingly also depends on the journalist’s computer skills and all journalists should equip themselves with a “digital survival kit” if they are exchanging sensitive information online or storing it on a computer or mobile phone.[52][53] And individuals associated with high profile rights organizations, dissident, protest, or reform groups are urged to take extra precautions to protect their online identities.[54]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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