‘IT for Oppression’

By » Tue, April 9 2013

Unit 61398 Chinese Army Hacking Jobs With Great Benefits 450x337 IT for Oppression

Bruce Schneier’s a security specialist with his own Internet meme. And while most people believe that technology elevates, improves things, Schneier holds that technology magnifies, makes things bigger, good and bad:

Whether it’s Syria using Facebook to help identify and arrest dissidents or China using its “Great Firewall” to limit access to international news throughout the country, repressive regimes all over the world are using the Internet to more efficiently implement surveillance, censorship, propaganda, and control. They’re getting really good at it, and the IT industry is helping. We’re helping by creating business applications — categories of applications, really — that are being repurposed by oppressive governments for their own use:

  • What is called censorship when practiced by a government is content filtering when practiced by an organization. Many companies want to keep their employees from viewing porn or updating their Facebook pages while at work. In the other direction, data loss prevention software keeps employees from sending proprietary corporate information outside the network and also serves as a censorship tool. Governments can use these products for their own ends.
  • Propaganda is really just another name for marketing. All sorts of companies offer social media-based marketing services designed to fool consumers into believing there is “buzz” around a product or brand. The only thing different in a government propaganda campaign is the content of the messages.
  • Surveillance is necessary for personalized marketing, the primary profit stream of the Internet. Companies have built massive Internet surveillance systems designed to track users’ behavior all over the Internet and closely monitor their habits. These systems track not only individuals but also relationships between individuals, to deduce their interests so as to advertise to them more effectively. It’s a totalitarian’s dream.
  • Control is how companies protect their business models by limiting what people can do with their computers. These same technologies can easily be co-opted by governments that want to ensure that only certain computer programs are run inside their countries or that their citizens never see particular news programs.

What goes unsaid in his essay is that the leader of the tech industry, and the most heavily-equipped to use IT — and therefor IT for oppression — is a lot closer to home.

Of course the US is the heart of IT and the government is no slouch when it comes to using it for being big and all up in people’s business. (Tee-hee!)

That being said, the man isn’t the only entity out there capable of oppression. Frankly, your bank, your ISP, your health insurance company, and anyone else with any financial or informational leverage on you can quickly turn from your source of kittehs to a whipmaster extraordinairre.

It doesn’t hurt that the man is on their side (read: not yours). CISPA and CFAA are back, and they’re even worse than before. How worse is worse?

Under the amendments, which might be voted on as early as April 10, violating terms of service could be defined as racketeering – so that you could be prosecuted as though your violation of terms of service made you into a mobster.

They also add “conspiring” to violate terms of service to the list of offenses that are a felony under the CFAA. So you can be thrown in jail just for talking about ways to violate terms of service.

The amendments also make it a felony to obtain information that you are entitled to obtain, if you do so in a way that violates terms of service. My wife and I share some online accounts, including our “family” airmiles account with British Airways, which we both contribute to and use, but only my wife can see the details of them (she signed up for the service, so it’s linked to her login). We’re both entitled to see those details, but poor service design makes it impossible to do this without sharing a login and password. No problem, except that BA’s terms of service forbid this. So looking up my own airmiles, which I earned, and which I’m entitled to see and use, would be a felony under these amendments because I was looking at them in a way that violates BA’s terms.

The amendments also include increased powers for seizure of property, which will enable the Feds to take away the assets you might use to defend yourself against a CFAA claim.

This is a trainwreck. It will allow the DoJ to put every single American Internet user in prison at their discretion, because we all violate terms of service every day. For example, Seventeen magazine’s terms of service forbid you from visiting its website if you’re under eighteen (!), and that means that its 4.5 million underage readers would all be felons under the CFAA, and liable to decades in prison.

What can you do? Well, fight the legislation. Email your reps and all that. Maybe from a library and with a throwaway addy … we’ve pushed laws like these back before, we can do it again.

But that doesn’t mean you’re not at risk anyway. Things to consider:

  • Open-source software. It’s terms of use are extremely fair and not likely to change, and even if it does, generally speaking, it won’t affect you unless you’re trying to fuck with it (by selling or something; you have to try hard).
  • Control your own digital infrastructure. Stop using the cloud for shit. You don’t have to set up a Tor browser on your LPS partition to get your YouTube on at a coffee shop; you don’t have to buy your own domain and host your own email account; you don’t have to ditch your smartphone and buy a disposable cell phone — clever solutions that they are — just be mindful of what you use, and what information it uses from you.
  • Find your unnecessary dependencies, and cut them. Just spend some time off away from the Internet. Go camping and make water under the daystar. Figure out what you do and don’t need to get by, and plan accordingly.

IT can be/is for oppression. Some of its shackles you put on yourself.

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