Network: The peasants will revolt again, crypto fascists

Spying on our messages gives Big Brother an unfair advantage
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The Independent Culture
SO, LET'S talk about "unfair". It's a two-syllable word that's caused more trouble in the past two centuries than almost any other one I can think of, bar "justice".

And while this might not sound like a topic for a technology column, trust me on this one.

The world is changing. It happens to be changing more rapidly than it ever has, and technology is the mighty, perhaps uncontrolled, engine driving that change.

Technology both hinders and helps make the world a fairer place. Technology clobbers whole industries, leaving thousands redundant almost overnight. Technology also enables clever, hard-working people to create thousands of new jobs, also almost overnight.

We have evolved for eons to be pretty good hunter-gatherers. Yet, today, other skills define success. While my forebear was successful because of her choice of sharp stone, I may distinguish myself (or not) by my choice of browser. The problem is that said forebears had some millennia to work on the stone issue; you and I have had to figure out browsers in something like five years.

Indeed, the last 200 years have seen a locked-horns struggle between the guys (and I do mean males) who've run things, and the rest of us. We've all had some serious differences of opinion about who ought to do what when, and more importantly, who ought to benefit from the what. Witness the French and American Revolutions as two examples, not to mention the two World Wars, the Cold War and the other misery we've seen fit to engage in.

Technology has changed the power-distribution landscape repeatedly: the press broke the church's 1,000-year grip on Western Europe, gunpowder changed any number of balances of power, not to mention the changes wrought by the steam engine, or steam rotary press or broadcasting.

In the ongoing struggle - royalty vs peasant, boss vs worker - one sure trend has been to favour the little guy. Today, a middle-class Briton or American can routinely do things no 18th-century king or queen could have even dreamt of.

Could Louis XIV have gone to New York for the weekend? Could he have booked the cheapest ticket online? You and I know more about how the world works than did Marie Antoinette - and we are much less likely to meet her fate thanks to our grasp of the evening news or daily read of sites such as

Basically, the last 200 years - indeed, the last two millennia - haven't gone particularly well for the power elite. The balance has shifted ever more to us little guys. The world has become a fairer place.

True, a lot of money is still in the hands of relatively few people, but it's not what it once was. Mr Rockefeller was wealthy enough to have run the entire US economy for some months out of his own pocket. Mr Gates couldn't run it for more than a day or two.

But change has accelerated mightily in the closing years of this century, and wrought a most unpleasant surprise. Suddenly, the powers that be have an unexpected advantage.

Computers and the global network should work to the advantage of us all, at least those of us who can afford computers and Net connections. Webvan will bring us miserables our bread; fresh, inexpensive and delivered before Ms Antoinette has a chance to advise us to eat cake.

But computers now make one task - eavesdropping - so easy that it's, well, unfair.

The BBC broke the story that Echelon, a rumoured top-secret system for snooping on every phone call, fax and e-mail, does exist. This hasn't exactly been news in the hi-tech community, since Echelon's reputed capabilities are well within the reach of hardware that can be bought off the shelf.

The real story is that a task that was once hard for the powers that be - spying on millions of messages hourly - is now ridiculously easy. It used to take a couple of crack technicians and a court order to place a wire tap on a single citizen in the US - meaning it cost lots of money, effort and political capital.

Now, for a fraction of that cost, any well-heeled entity - government or multinational - can routinely fish for interesting conversations that any of us might care to have. Word, phrase and pattern-recognition software can scan millions of communications hourly, and call "suspect" communiques to the attention of the authorities.

Fairness is suddenly in jeopardy. Big Brother's got the goods on me, but I don't have a clue as to what he's up to. And since systems such as Echelon exist outside the norms of our current social contract - and thus are subject to the usual egregious and outrageous excesses that "sovereign" entities seem to routinely enjoy - we're in trouble.

Potentially big, big trouble. If you don't think so, check with guys like Nelson Mandella.

Strong encryption immediately levels that playing field - Big Brother can't read my mail (I already can't read his - he uses encryption). Strong crypto makes the emerging world a fairer place.

There was big trouble when the peasants had no bread. There's going to be bigger trouble if the peasants have no crypto.