Read

Search form

Web Inventor Tim Berners-Lee Calls Spy Agencies' Encryption Cracking "Appalling and Foolish"

Web Inventor Tim Berners-Lee Calls Spy Agencies' Encryption Cracking "Appalling and Foolish"
Thu, 11/7/2013 - by Ed Pilkington
This article originally appeared on The Guardian

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the computer scientist who created the world wide web, has called for a "full and frank public debate" over Internet surveillance by the National Security Agency and its British counterpart, GCHQ, warning that the system of checks and balances over these two powerful bodies has failed.

As the inventor of the global system of inter-connectivity known as the web, with its now ubiquitous www and http, Berners-Lee is uniquely qualified to comment on the Internet spying that has been revealed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

In an interview with the Guardian, he expressed particular outrage that GCHQ and NSA had weakened the security of the Internet by cracking much of the online encryption on which hundreds of millions of users rely to protect the privacy of their data.

He said the agencies' decision to break the encryption software was "appalling" and "foolish", as it directly contradicted the efforts of both the US and UK governments to fight cybercrime and cyberwarfare, which they have identified as a top national security priority. Berners-Lee also decried the move as a betrayal of the technology industry.

In contrast to several senior British politicians – including prime minister David Cameron – who have called for the Guardian to be investigated over its reporting of the Snowden leaks, Berners-Lee sees both the news organization and Snowden himself as having acted in the public interest.

"Whistleblowers, and responsible media outlets that work with them, play an important role in society. We need powerful agencies to combat criminal activity online – but any powerful agency needs checks and balances, and based on recent revelations it seems the current system of checks and balances has failed," he said.

In an unprecedented hearing in Westminster on Thursday, questions over the conduct of Britain's spy agencies will be raised when the heads of the three secret services – MI5, MI6 and GCHQ – will go before parliament's intelligence and security committee.

The 90-minute session will give the nine-strong committee, led by Sir Malcolm Rifkind, a chance to question the agencies about the reach of the mass surveillance programs that have provoked a global debate about privacy in the Internet age. While critics have often despaired of the ISC's lack of clout, Rifkind has promised to use new powers to provide robust scrutiny of the agencies and restore public confidence in what they have been doing.

As the director of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) that seeks to forward global standards for the web, Berners-Lee is a leading authority on the power and the vulnerabilities of the Internet.

He said that the Guardian's coverage of the Snowden leaks had to be seen within the context of the failure of oversight of GCHQ's and the NSA's surveillance activities.

"Here is where whistleblowing and responsible reporting can step in to protect society's interests. It seems clear that the Guardian's reporting around the scale and scope of state surveillance has been in the public interest and has uncovered many important issues which now need a full and frank public debate."

Talking in his office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Berners-Lee said that though he had anticipated many of the surveillance activities exposed by Snowden, including taps on the Internet through the Prism program, he had not been prepared for the scale of the NSA/GCHQ operations. "I didn't realize it would be so big," he said.

At worst, such spying could damage the public's confidence in the intimate privacy of the Internet as a free and safe place in which to interact. "When you take away the safe space, you take away a lot of the power of human problem solving," he warned.

Berners-Lee will mark the 25th anniversary of his invention of the web next year by campaigning for greater public awareness of threats to the Internet and by pushing for an Internet charter that would codify the rights of all its users. As head of the World Wide Web Foundation, on November 22 he will release the 2013 Web Index, which measures the web's growth, utility and impact across about 80 countries – including indicators on censorship and surveillance.

The scientist, who was honored in the opening ceremony of the London Olympics, reserved his harshest words for GCHQ and the NSA's undermining of the protection afforded by encryption, which he said would benefit organized criminal hacker gangs and hostile states.

"In a totalitarian state where it reckoned it was the only strong state in the world, I can imagine that being a reasonable plan. But in this situation, Internet security is hard. It's naïve to imagine that if you introduce a weakness into a system you will be the only one to use it."

He also criticized the cracking of encryption on ethical grounds: "Any democratic country has to take the high road; it has to live by its principles. I'm very sympathetic to attempts to increase security against organized crime, but you have to distinguish yourself from the criminal."

Berners-Lee said that the series of Snowden disclosures revealed a failure at the heart of oversight in both the US and UK governments, which he called "dysfunctional and unaccountable". The leaked documents begged the question: who guards the guards themselves?

In practice, he said, the only practical answer to that question was the whistleblowers. He called for the introduction of an international system of protection for whistleblowers such as Snowden, who has taken up a year's temporary refuge in Russia.

The Obama administration has pursued official leakers heavily, launching eight prosecutions under the 1917 Espionage Act including that of Snowden himself – more than twice the total number under all previous presidents.

"Civilization has to a certain extent depended on whistleblowers, and therefore you have to protect them," Berners-Lee said.

Originally published by The Guardian

Add new comment

Sign Up

Article Tabs

Some of the biggest issues facing our country are forgotten once the cameras switch off, but our ADD news cycle only makes us more vulnerable to repeat disasters like the Flint water crisis.

climate change denial, climate deniers, Donald Trump, rising sea levels, carbon emissions

The billionaire who called global warming a hoax is now warning of its dire effects in his company's application to build a sea wall to protect Trump International Golf Links & Hotel Ireland in County Clare.

wealth inequality, income inequality, wealth gap, growing poverty, growing disparity

After 35 years of wealth distribution to the super-rich, inequality has forced much of the middle class towards the bottom, to near-poverty levels, and to a state of helplessness in which they find themselves being blamed for their own misfortunes.

climate change, climate denial, Portland Public Schools

In a move spearheaded by environmentalists, the Portland Public Schools board unanimously approved a resolution aimed at eliminating doubt of climate change and its causes in schools.

single-payer healthcare, Obamacare, Affodable Care Act, public option, health insurance industry, health insurance companies

There's a not-insignificant amount of evidence that when you strip out the names of parties and candidates, support for government-run insurance cuts across partisan lines – and most Americans want a single-payer healthcare system.

Bernie Sanders, political revolution, money in politics, political left, generational shift, revolutionary politics, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, Fight for $15, young voters, Bernie supporters

Without Occupy, Black Lives Matter, the Fight for $15, the mobilization of teachers and nurses, immigrant movements, and many other struggles, there would never have been a Bernie Sanders campaign.

Posted 5 days 2 hours ago
wealth inequality, the 1%, the 99%, income inequality, "The Divide," Katherine Round, widening inequality, global protests, neoliberalism

Katharine Round’s new documentary, "The Divide," adds substantially to the debate around inequality as it explains in clear terms how our 35-year experiment in neoliberalism has failed spectacularly.

Posted 6 days 2 hours ago
Activists in Ibeno, Nigeria.

Last weekend, tens of thousands of activists in 13 countries on six continents protested against climate change and the burning of fossil fuels.

Posted 5 days 2 hours ago
climate change, global warming, Break Free from Fossil Fuels, climate protests, global climate movement, Carbon Brief, carbon emissions, climate arrests, British Petroleum, BP, Enbridge, Flood Wall Street, People's Climate March, risking arrest, civil dis

My arrest didn’t feel like a risk, it felt like a transaction. I’ve found freedom in facing my fears and dispensing with false choices.

Posted 2 days 7 hours ago
Verizon strikes, outsourced jobs, low wage economy, telecom giants, corporate profits

Verizon’s decision to prioritize short-term profits and executive compensation over investments in advanced services that rely on its skilled workforce makes it the poster child for corporate excess.

Posted 6 days 2 hours ago
Nestle water grab, water privatization, Columbia River Gorge, Cascade Locks

Voters in one Oregon county last week approved a ban on commercial bottled water production, stopping a years-long effort by Swiss transnational Nestle to sell over 100 million gallons of water a year from the Columbia River Gorge.

climate change, global warming, Break Free from Fossil Fuels, climate protests, global climate movement, Carbon Brief, carbon emissions, climate arrests, British Petroleum, BP, Enbridge, Flood Wall Street, People's Climate March, risking arrest, civil dis

My arrest didn’t feel like a risk, it felt like a transaction. I’ve found freedom in facing my fears and dispensing with false choices.

Bernie Sanders, political revolution, money in politics, political left, generational shift, revolutionary politics, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, Fight for $15, young voters, Bernie supporters

Without Occupy, Black Lives Matter, the Fight for $15, the mobilization of teachers and nurses, immigrant movements, and many other struggles, there would never have been a Bernie Sanders campaign.

Activists in Ibeno, Nigeria.

Last weekend, tens of thousands of activists in 13 countries on six continents protested against climate change and the burning of fossil fuels.

wealth inequality, the 1%, the 99%, income inequality, "The Divide," Katherine Round, widening inequality, global protests, neoliberalism

Katharine Round’s new documentary, "The Divide," adds substantially to the debate around inequality as it explains in clear terms how our 35-year experiment in neoliberalism has failed spectacularly.