Internet surveillance conference organiser John Farnsworth
warns surveillance this year may increase. Photo by Craig
In response to worldwide revelations last year, New
Zealand hosts its first internet surveillance conference at the
University of Otago at the end of January.
One of its organisers, John Farnsworth, outlines the
It's been reliably estimated that over two trillion bits of
information pour across world data banks every day.
This staggering figure heralds the size of the global
transformation taking place as nations move towards a digital
Most of this data is piped across the internet, flowing
ceaselessly from one region to another. The question, of
course, is what becomes of this information, and who uses it?
Until recently, the internet has been a cause for ongoing
celebration and wonderment. Innovations such as YouTube,
Google, Twitter and Facebook have realigned and enriched the
ways nearly all of us communicate with each other.
The explosion of smartphones and portable devices has ignited
off the back of them. Yet these unforeseen inventions have
also brought unrivalled intrusion into everyday lives.
In Imperial times, the Russian censor manually checked every
letter that came before him. Nowadays metadata - the tags
attached to any piece of information - allow every electronic
transmission to be digitally trawled instantly for patterns
Big corporations use this to generate big data: hunting for
clusters of user activity so they can predict and shape
consumer preferences. This is the basis of Amazon's trading,
music service Spotify's recommendation services, and the
growth of Netflix, the new US giant of online programming.
Data and algorithms allow these companies to shape consumer
trends by making consumer recommendations and providing
hyperfast responses. It also enables them to on-sell their
metadata to advertisers. Netflix, for example, is changing
the face of television scheduling.
It employs an army of 800 programmers who predict by the
millisecond how and when viewers consume shows, and offer
them fresh episodes before they even know they want them. The
result is widely reported as Netflix addiction.
This is successful data mining. Companies such as Axciom, the
second-largest in its field, harnesses 23,000 computer
servers to digest 50 trillion transactions a year.
The New York Times' Alice Marwick reports it possesses 200
million mobile profiles and 1500 pieces of data per consumer.
These list the valuation of their homes and vehicles, their
buying behaviour and their online preferences.
Such commercial trawling may be disturbing because of its
intrusions on ordinary, unsuspecting users. Far more
disturbing, recently, has been worldwide government
This is the combination of unrestricted electronic
eavesdropping and massive metadata analysis which has become
the routine work of state and governments.
Reaction has been intense and worldwide, including the
Wikileaks movement, last year's Edward Snowden disclosures,
and the continuing revelations about NSA spying worldwide.
Locally, it has fuelled the outcry against the GCSB, the
three strikes anti-piracy law and wide opposition to the
Search and Surveillance Bill, passed last year.
There are the ongoing court actions with Kim Dotcom, due back
in court in February. Before this was public debate over
police surveillance during the 2007 Urewera raids.
The protest has been against the unwarranted, arrogant, often
illegal surveillance of ordinary citizens. It has also been
against the erosion of private rights and privacy, the lack
of access to who is being surveilled, and the astonishing
failures of public accountability.
All these upheavals have prompted New Zealand's first
conference on these concerns, running at the University of
Otago from January 30 to February 1.
It promises intensive scrutiny of surveillance, privacy
breaches and copyright debates. Well-known campaigning
journalist Nicky Hager and Dotcom's colleague Vikram Kumar,
the chief executive of Mega, will speak in open public
Prof Graham Murdock, an authority on the digital divide,
unpacks the significance of these extremely rapid changes.
Experts from Australia, the US and Europe will dissect the
implications for civil society, collective life and
legitimate rights to privacy. The conference asks whether a
free and open internet can survive.
On the broader world stage, the whole foundation of the open
internet is under threat. Google's founder, Sergei Brin,
warned in 2012 that states such as China, Iran or Saudi
Arabia seek to restrict the internet for their own security
Constant cyberwars are fought out between China and the US,
increasing levels of encryption and surveillance. US
cyber-snooping created enough worldwide fear to risk the
whole internet becoming fractured into regional
mini-internets as a response.
If that happens, the open internet is over. And it's not just
states. Big companies, such as Apple or Microsoft, and major
US internet providers are calling for, and creating, ''walled
These are closed systems where firms can charge users for
access to the electronic highways and services they own. Even
in New Zealand, serious concerns have been voiced that SkyTV
has been doing deals with major internet providers to limit
choice to their own channels.
There are also increasing security breaches that release
private information into unknown hands. Pre-Christmas, in the
US, several major retailers such as Target suffered cyber
attacks by criminal hackers, because of their inadequate
security, losing 40 million payment card numbers as a result.
These echo the major data breaches experienced at Winz and
ACC in New Zealand.
It is easy to believe 2013 was the year of disturbing
revelations about internet surveillance and this year will be
On the contrary, giant corporations and intelligence services
across the world have deep interests and expanding resources
for shaping the stream of digital information.
The evidence suggests intrusions and violations will
increase, not diminish.
Conference website: https://blogs.otago.ac.nz/scpconf/
Dr John Farnsworth is from the Department of Media,
Film & Communication at the University of Otago.