Tech blog

Easy spying

»Surveillance took a big leap during the recent London Olympic games. To thwart terrorists and hackers, security officials hung thousands of surveillance cameras over the city.

The also designed an elaborate electronic security plan which subjected everything -- from network infrastructure to electronic door locks -- to intense monitoring. The systems that monitored these activities generated petabytes of data. Using big data analytics tools security officials processed the data in real time looking for threats. 

So far, standard operating procedure. But as ‘Ars Technica’ reports the electronic security operations at London Olympics, unlike in the past, did not cost billions of pounds to provide.  The real-time processing of massive data was a kind of activity till recently affordable only to government authorities or very large corporations. But thanks to advances in technology, even smaller organisations with modest budgets can now undertake them.

Security agencies and ISPs keep a watch on data passing through networks using a technology called Deep Packet Inspection (DPI). They frisk the data which is passing through the network looking for specific clues that may trigger alarm.
But DPI is very expensive as it generates a lot of data, which will need a lot of storage and computing power to process in real time. But thanks to technology developed by the likes of Google, big data analytics and storage systems are now within the reach of much smaller organisations, enabling them to keep a magnifying lens on their employees or customers.

An official at Electronic Frontier Foundation Technology, a group which is opposed to unbridled surveillance, told ‘Ars’ that these technologies were initially developed to find malware, but are now being ‘repurposed as commercial surveillance technology’.
Companies have tried to exploit the technology for commercial benefits. NebuAd tried to sell targeted advertisements to users after intrusively monitoring their activity. It stopped only after its tactics raised privacy alarm loud enough to get the attention of the US Congress.

More importantly, unregulated surveillance often goes beyond legitimate law
enforcement and becomes a tool of political repression. As the accompanying story shows spyware developed to watch criminals is being used to suppress dissident activity (Spyware targets dissidents).

In India, surveillance technology is widely used, but without adequate
supervision or even debate. Narus, a leading DPI technology provider, counts many Indian ISPs among its customers.  Surveillance decisions in India are largely left to bureaucrats at various levels, while judges have voluntarily opted out of the process.

With the technology becoming more affordable, it can only become more widespread. All of us will be subject to the scrutiny of many big brothers without effective safeguards against abuse.

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