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Privacy of Communications in the Age of the Internet

Updated on July 31, 2018
WVitanyi profile image

William has written five books, on topics ranging from technological fiction to office humor, and is the owner of Bayla Publishing.

Data Flow?
Data Flow?

Wires in a Wireless World

In an increasingly wireless world, we tend to take physical wires for granted, but most electronic communications still race across the wired world. That telephone pole in front of your house is a potential witness to any number of texts, emails, or browses. It is conceivable that even as you watch, data is traversing the sagging phone line.

Still, that drooping line is only the tip of the iceberg, and is part of a much larger system that ultimately joins with millions of similar wired segments to send data across the backbone of the Internet. That data - your data - is out there, and may be vulnerable.

A Network of Networks

As it turns out, the Internet isn't just those wires across from your house. It's a network of networks. Data leaves your PC or other smart device through cable, the phone lines, satellite, cellular, or whatever technology you are using. It exits your house and continues its journey to a larger network.

If you still connect to the Internet via DSL, your data is probably flowing through the the phone line across the street, but first things first.

What is the Internet?

A Brief Internet History

The Internet is a product of the U.S. Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA). In the 1960s they undertook a project code-named Arpanet--short for Advanced Research Project Agency Network-- to build a survivable network in the event of war.

This network would allow distant facilities to share data even if part of the network was destroyed. At this time the fledgling Internet was controlled by the U.S. government.

In 1969 Arpanet connected four computers in four different universities: Stanford University, The University of California Los Angeles, The University of California Santa Barbara, and the University of Utah.

Between 1971 and 1993 there was increased participation in the project, and the development of FTP, email, and the World Wide Web (1991) soon followed.

In 1993 the the first web browser, Mosaic, was developed.

In 1995 the first search engines were developed.

On 1 January 1983 the Arpanet officially switched from the Network Control Protocol to TCP/IP. This technology allowed millions of computers to join the network, where previously it was limited to 1,000.

In the years since there has been exponential growth in all facets of Internet communication. So how does it work?

After You Press Send

When you send an email the message is split apart and converted into separate pieces called packets. Each packet includes:

The Address of the sender.
The Address of the recipient.
Data, called the payload.
The number of total packets in this message.
The sequence number of each packet.

Off it goes, through the wireless, the wire, and wherever, to your service provider, where your packets are accepted. They have a specialized computer, called a router, that knows where to send your packets. How?

The address of the recipient is called the IP address. It contains the unique number associated with the computer that you are sending this packet to. Every email name has an IP associated with it. A special server, called a DNS server, converts the human language name of the recipient into an IP address, something like 999.99.99.999.

Routers know something about this number, like exactly where it is located, or where to send it for further evaluation, or which router knows more than it does.

This analysis happens quickly, and routers are continuously updating their info to help move things along.

Your packets go from router to router until they get to their destination. When they arrive, the recipient computer checks the packets' integrity, sends a message indicating that it received successfully, and reassembles the packets in the right order once they are all received.

Web sites use the same methodology, except they are sending files (web pages) when you request them.

Network Wires
Network Wires

Data Conduits

Fiber optic lines run in tunnels beneath city streets, across telephone poles, buried underground, or even above ceiling tiles in office buildings. Not all wires are fiber optic, and of course, increasingly much data is sent without using wires at all, as wireless technology proliferates.

Despite these millions of individual pathways, there are a limited number of access points, and vast amounts of data aggregate into larger and larger data conduits. Getting to these data lines means getting to data. Lots of it, possibly including yours.

Fiber Backbones

As Internet demand increased, extensive fiber backbones—super fast data pathways—were built by numerous vendors. Soon virtually the entire country was wired. Computers became faster and faster, and cheaper and cheaper. Soon we were all using the Internet, which is really just a pathway from where you are to where you want to go. These pathways represent a flow of communications that is so hard to resist.

Technology, and more importantly, access, has advanced to the point where virtually all communications can be electronically monitored and saved to massive databases for analysis.

To get to this data requires much more than a pair of wire cutters and some alligator clips. It requires hardware, software, and most importantly, access to an infrastructure that is generally out of sight and out of mind.

Packet Sniffers

A packet sniffer is used to monitor and analyze network traffic by examining individual packets as they pass by. The packets described earlier can be viewed or analyzed to troubleshoot network issues.

There are many commercially available packet sniffers on the market, but one of the more infamous examples was Carnivore, used by the FBI. Such tools are ostensibly to be used in conjunction with a criminal investigation, and the use of such software is theoretically limited by court order.

Still, the technology exists. The network exists.

Inside the Fiber
Inside the Fiber

Our Data

There is a public interest in the grand fishing expedition, as government works to protect against threats to the homeland. There is also a public interest in public privacy, although this sometimes take a back seat.

The old adage that if you haven't done anything wrong, you don't have anything to worry about, may be true. However, if you haven't done anything wrong, why do they need your data?

Spam and viruses are known threats at the desktop level, where you have some capability to impact your computing environment. However, once you press Send, Elvis has left the building.The data is no longer under your control.The packets are out there, on the Net.


The organized violation of our community privacy is now possible due to the development of the Internet, along with tools such as packet sniffers. The price of instant communications and online multimedia may be loss of privacy, but whether the price is too high remains to be seen.

© 2013 WVitanyi


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