Olympics: Online monitoring is growing

Thanks to Greg Walton, the Asia editor for Infowar Monitor, for passing along this New Scientist article about the rapid commercialization of Internet and e-mail monitoring technology. You can access a preview of Laura Margottini’s piece, but you’ll need a subscription to the magazine or buy online access to get the full article. It’s worth it. For context, Greg added these pdf links in his e-mail message. They’re Siemens documents describing one of the products discussed in her piece.

Siemens (and several other companies) have developed software platforms that not only track e-mail content, but look for and analyze patterns of association amid the vast amount of information that they gather. The software still isn’t that good, it gives a lot of false positive and negative results, but we can expect it to get better.

In her piece, Margottini says:

Whatever the level of accuracy, human rights advocates are concerned that the system could give surveillance-hungry repressive regimes a ready-made means of monitoring their citizens. Carole Samdup of the organisation Rights and Democracy, in Montreal, Canada, says the system bears a strong resemblance to the Chinese government’s “Golden Shield” concept [my discussion of Golden Shield is here], a massive surveillance network encompassing internet and email monitoring as well as speech and facial-recognition technologies and closed-circuit TV.

In 2001, Rights and Democracy raised concerns about the potential for governments to integrate huge information databases with real time analysis to track the activities of individuals. “Now in 2008 these very characteristics are presented as value-added selling points in the company advertisement of its product,” Samdup says.

The point being made here by Walton, Margottini, and Samdup is that while China has been the focus of the critics of its Internet censorship, in fact the problem is now not only global, but being commercialized, and we had better start looking in our own back yards at the monitoring of our online lives. 

I first heard Greg speak at World Association of Newspapers pre-Olympics conference in Paris in April, and he has generously given CPJ advice when we started receiving increasingly well disguised messages containing pdf files modified to contain malware to monitor our email traffic and harvest pass words. Greg’s speech in Paris addressed the use of cyber attacks on groups and had a fine analysis of their origins.

(Reporting from Hong Kong)