Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

The generation of e-Emergency

The next generation of censorship technology is expected to be 'real-time content manipulation' through ISPs and Internet companies

Censorship during the Emergency in the 1970s was done by clamping down on the media by intimidating editors and journalists, and installing a human censor at every news agency with a red pencil. In the age of both multicast and broadcast media, thought and speech control is more expensive and complicated but still possible to do. What governments across the world have realized is that traditional web censorship methods such as filtering and blocking are not effective because of circumvention technologies and the Streisand effect (a phenomenon in which an attempt to hide or censor information proves to be counter-productive). New methods to manipulate the networked public sphere have evolved accordingly. India, despite claims to the contrary, still does not have the budget and technological wherewithal to successfully pull off some of the censorship and surveillance techniques described below, but thanks to Moore’s law and to the global lack of export controls on such technologies, this might change in the future.

First, mass technological-enabled surveillance resulting in self-censorship and self-policing. The coordinated monitoring of Occupy protests in the US by the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) counter-terrorism units, police departments and the private sector showcased the bleeding edge of surveillance technologies. Stingrays or IMSI catchers are fake mobile towers that were used to monitor calls, Internet traffic and SMSes. Footage from helicopters, drones, high-res on-ground cameras and the existing CCTV network was matched with images available on social media using facial recognition technology. This intelligence was combined with data from the global-scale Internet surveillance that we know about thanks to the National Security Agency (NSA) whistle-blower Edward Snowden, and what is dubbed “open source intelligence" gleaned by monitoring public social media activity; and then used by police during visits to intimidate activists and scare them off the protests.

Second, mass technological gaming—again, according to documents released by Snowden, the British spy agency, GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters), has developed tools to seed false information online, cast fake votes in web polls, inflate visitor counts on sites, automatically discover content on video-hosting platform and send takedown notices, permanently disable accounts on computers, find private photographs on Facebook, monitor Skype activity in real time and harvest Skype contacts, prevent access to certain websites by using peer-to-peer based distributed denial of service attacks, spoof any email address and amplify propaganda on social media. According to The Intercept, a secret unit of GCHQ called the Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group (JTRIG) combined technology with psychology and other social sciences to “not only understand, but shape and control how online activism and discourse unfolds". The JTRIG used fake victim blog posts, false flag operations and honey traps to discredit and manipulate activists.

Third, mass human manipulation. The exact size of the Kremlin troll army is unknown. But in an interview with Radio Liberty, St. Petersburg blogger Marat Burkhard (who spent two months working for Internet Research Agency) said, “there are about 40 rooms with about 20 people sitting in each, and each person has their assignments." The room he worked in had each employee produce 135 comments on social media in every 12-hour shift for a monthly remuneration of 45,000 rubles. According to Burkhard, in order to bring a “feeling of authenticity", his department was divided into teams of three—one of them would be a villain troll who would represent the voice of dissent, the other two would be the picture troll and the link troll. The picture troll would use images to counter the villain troll’s point of view by appealing to emotion while the link troll would use arguments and references to appeal to reason. In a day, the “troika" would cover 35 forums.

The next generation of censorship technology is expected to be “real-time content manipulation" through ISPs and Internet companies. We have already seen word filters where blacklisted words or phrases are automatically expunged. Last week, Bengaluru-based activist Thejesh GN detected that Airtel was injecting javascript into every web page that you download using a 3G connection. Airtel claims that it is injecting code developed by the Israeli firm Flash Networks to monitor data usage but the very same method can be used to make subtle personalized changes to web content. In China, according to a paper by Tao Zhu et al titled The Velocity of Censorship: High-Fidelity Detection of Microblog Post Deletions, “Weibo also sometimes makes it appear to a user that their post was successfully posted, but other users are not able to see the post. The poster receives no warning message in this case."

More than two decades ago, John Gilmore, of Electronic Frontier Foundation, famously said, “the Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it." That was when the topology of the Internet was highly decentralized and there were hundreds of ISPs that competed with each other to provide access. Given the information diet of the average netizen today, the Internet is, for all practical purposes, highly centralized and therefore governments find it easier and easier to control.

Sunil Abraham is executive director, Centre for Internet and Society.

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