The monster devouring us: Even the men who created the internet are beginning to fear its power to destroy our freedom
By Michael Hanlon
Fast-forward 40 years. It is November 2049 and privacy is a distant memory.
Every telephone call you make, every text you send on your mobile phone, every email and videocall, every financial transaction is recorded, stored, analysed and can potentially be used against you.
Each waking hour you are also deluged with marketing calls and sales pitches - which pop up on your mobile, your hand-held computer and even in your car.
You walk into a shop and not only do the salesmen know who you are, they know what you want - before you even open your mouth.
This is a world in which you are constantly worried about who is reading your emails and analysing your phone calls.
Come election time, you are bombarded with video texts of the party leaders addressing your concerns. The powers that be know how much tax you pay, what you spend your money on, how many children you have and who your friends are.
It is a Britain, indeed a world, where the private individual has ceased to exist, and one in which an unholy alliance of the state and Mammon rules our lives with powers that would have made Stalin sick with envy.
This dystopian nightmare is a distinct possibility thanks to what is probably the most significant invention of the 20th century - the internet.
And although this nightmare is set in the future, much of it is starting to happen.
The net, which turned 40 years old last week, is often touted as the ultimate tool of freedom and knowledge.
But in another 40 years’ time, will we still be celebrating this extraordinary electronic marvel - or rueing the creation of a monster? That is the troubling question being asked not just by technological luddites, but by the founders of the internet itself.
Although most people became aware of the net only in the early Nineties, the global ‘network of networks’ has a history stretching back to the earliest days of computing.
The first network connection was made on October 29, 1969, when an undergraduate called Charley Kline attempted to make a computer in Los Angeles communicate with another computer at Stanford up the coast.
The first word communicated on the net was ‘Lo’ - Kline was attempting to type the word ‘Login’ when the system crashed.
They got it working again and, for nearly three decades, what became known as the ‘internet’ (the actual term was first used in 1974) remained mostly a tool of academia and the military, gradually spreading its tentacles across the globe.
But then came the invention of the world wide web - the means by which anyone, anywhere could easily access this brave new online world.
This was the creation of British scientist Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau, his Belgian colleague at the CERN nuclear research institute in 1989.
Thanks to them, we are now in an age when it is almost impossible to imagine life without the net. With every passing year, its power and importance increases.
And herein lie the doubts of its founders.
For while the net has been championed as the ultimate expression of ‘people power’, there is a more sinister possibility. Its dominance in our lives has led its architects to fear it could be used as a weapon of intrusion, suppression and exploitation.
Already, anti-democratic regimes are increasingly subverting the openness of the net and using it as a weapon against their enemies.
Take China, which went online in 1993 and now has the greatest number of internet users of any nation - about a third of a billion.
This phenomenal growth in internet use has been subsidised and encouraged by the Beijing regime. And yet despite the flow of countless terabytes of data, China is as far from being a democracy as it was at the time of the Tiananmen Square riots 20 years ago. It’s a troubling paradox, but one explained by the very nature of what the internet actually does.
It has been joked that the one thing you need for a totalitarian state to work is a decent filing system. Indeed, it has been estimated that in East Germany, the Stasi secret police ‘employed’ a third of the population to act as snoops on compatriots.
Now imagine that the Stasi had had access to Google.
As Robert Cailliau says: ‘It would have been terrible.’
There would have been no need for a network of potentially unreliable human snoops; just a few servers quietly hooked up to everyone’s telephone lines and computers, monitoring their credit card usage and cross-matching it all with the pictures coming in from millions of CCTV cameras.
Cailliau’s fears are echoed by Professor Peter Kirstein of University College London, the man responsible for bringing the first internet connection to Britain in the early Seventies.
‘Once you have a universal medium like this, it is very hard to keep information about events hidden; to that extent, it is a great tool against oppression,’ he says.
‘However, by the same token, it is very straightforward to build in monitoring facilities into the heart of the network, so that the authorities can discover where the information they don’t like is coming from.’
In other words, far from empowering freedom-fighters, the web can be used to track them down easily and suppress them.
Professor Kirstein believes that in the future, there will be a constant battle, a kind of arms race between the authorities and the subversives - or oppressed.
Whether good or evil will be in the lead in 40 years’ time is anyone’s guess.
Yet Professor Cailliau believes there is an even graver threat from the net than totalitarian tyranny. He believes the ‘really sinister stuff’ will come not from governments, but from big business. The trouble, he says, stems from the ease by which data can be gathered, processed and sold on.
‘The temptation to exploit these things is very high.’
Already Google, the very symbol of the 21st-century net, has been accused of hoarding data from its millions of email users.
Many fear that in the coming decades, Google will be unable to resist the temptation of cashing in on this goldmine of information it holds.
Currently, the company makes much of its money from being a shop window for online advertising.
But Google’s ‘knowledge’ of individual people, thanks to its email services and mobile phone applications, goes much deeper than that.
The technology already exists to enable Google, or companies like it, to track every move - quite literally - of the millions who have a web-enabled mobile phone.
A life online
Indeed, it is already increasingly hard to live your life without the internet.
Booking holidays, buying airline tickets, banking, insurance - even keeping in touch with friends - is increasingly being done using the net. And everything you do online can, in theory, be recorded for ever.
‘If I sign up for Facebook and want my account destroyed, it is impossible,’ says Cailliau. ‘They keep tabs on you, there will always be a trace.’
Furthermore, every time you sign up for an online service, be it Twitter, Facebook or even an online supermarket loyalty card, you provide huge amounts of valuable information.
Even data about yourself that you have not directly volunteered can be gleaned by so-called data-mining software - used to spot patterns about your behaviour and sift gold dust from the morass of electronic information that you have produced by going online.
This can then be used to tailor Google’s service to your individual ‘needs’ or even financial status.
‘Maybe when I go to an airline site and buy a ticket, I’ll be quoted a price that they have worked out I will be able to pay - a price quite different from that given to my neighbours,’ says Robert Cailliau.
The key to all this is the ability of Google and other companies to store data.
Every move we make
Forty years ago, storing information of any kind was expensive; now computer memory is so cheap that in the near future it should be possible to record in digital form every telephone conversation, every television and radio transmission and every movie and still image.
Already, more than two billion songs a day are shared over the net, hundreds of millions of video streams are placed on YouTube, the surveillance CCTV cameras in London alone send 64 trillion bits of data a day to their command centres.
By the end of the next decade or so, humankind will be producing more information each second than was produced in the entire 19th century. And all this information can be stored, cross-referenced and mined for eternity.
This is a new phenomenon, and has massive and disturbing potential.
As Professor Kirstein says: ‘Every travel movement you make, every commercial transaction, any official request - they are all logged somewhere. Our ability to disappear is completely constrained by any public activity.’
There are laws against this, though they are not well-enforced, but it is still possible - just - to avoid being sucked in by the net.
And surprisingly, one of those trying to is Robert Cailliau.
‘I’m not on Twitter, nor Facebook, or LinkedIn, or any of these systems,’ he says.
‘Because they suck in your soul and they will not let you go. Try to get out of any of them, and you will see. They are just like some religions where apostasy is punished by death.’
Forty years from its birth, the net has become ubiquitous, awesomely successful and, in itself, morally neutral.
But the question remains: will the internet of 2049 be a tool we will all cherish - or something which has become a force for evil such as we have not seen in the entire history of Man.