The internet was supposed to flatten the world, but life remains unequal. This week, Mallika Sherawat got to shake a leg at Twitter HQ in San Francisco while her producer brained a coconut on the sidewalk outside. In Srinagar, what was believed to be the custodial death of a young man was revealed to be the result of jealousy on Orkut. And Shashi Tharoor was banned from tweeting on the job by the Ministry of External Affairs in Delhi in obeisance to security, the great god of our irreligious age.
Just goes to show that digital life isn’t as exotic as we imagine. People behave similarly whether they’re face to face or on Facebook. They have a good time, get violent, talk carelessly and expose themselves to risk. The government is now concerned about risk. The MEA ban will stave off Twitter-borne worms and phishers. It will also prevent embarrassments like the one in Germany in May, when Horst Köhler’s re-election as President was leaked on Twitter 15 minutes before the poll results were declared.
Both in government and the private sector Bluetooth, wi-fi, thumb drives and smartphones are already banned at sensitive data locations, like call centres and intelligence facilities. This prevents data theft by staffers and visitors, but the government is helpless about intruders who come down the wire. There have been repeated security breaches since 2007, a number of them originating from China.
In 2007, a Swedish researcher set up listening posts on Tor, a privacy service which primarily supports free speech, created by the US Navy and now promoted by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Dan Egerstad made startling findings, including the military ambitions of Australia and the chitchat of DRDO staffers and Indian diplomats in Beijing. It appeared that intruders were snooping on these sensitive communications, cloaking their identities in Tor.
The trail warmed up last summer when the Dalai Lama’s offices in Dharamshala reported suspicious activity on their computers and called in specialists from the University of Toronto. In March this year, they revealed that 1,200 computers, mostly located in South and Southeast Asia, had been taken over by a network they named GhostNet. Apart from stealing data, it could turn a computer into a bug by switching on the webcam and microphone. About a third of the affected computers belonged to NGOs, activists, media organisations, foreign ministries and embassies — particularly Indian embassies. Someone had carefully chosen valuable targets and kept them under surveillance since 2007, when Egerstad had stumbled on weird Tor traffic.
Three of the four control servers of GhostNet have been traced to Hainan island, where the People’s Liberation Army maintains intelligence units. The control interface is written in Chinese. There is no conclusive evidence that the Chinese government is involved but really, we need to be sure. Because on July 1, the Chinese were to make it mandatory to install an Internet censoring software called Green Dam Youth Escort on all computers sold on the mainland. A porn filter which snoops on users, its launch has fortunately been delayed. Its coding would allow hackers — or the government — to herd all new Chinese computers into a gigantic botnet. The implications are scary.
Even your tiniest tweet could be heard loud and clear in Beijing.
(Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine)
The views expressed by the author are personal