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Online Data: Security and Vulnerability in an Unseen Infrastructure.

Updated on November 18, 2014
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William has written five books, on topics ranging from technological fiction to office humor, and is the owner of Bayla Publishing.

Is data traversing now?
Is data traversing now?

Where is the Internet?

As I sit at home in front of my computer and glance out the window at the telephone wires, I wonder, is data flowing through those very lines? I hit Enter, and quickly look again at the wires.

Is that where my data just went?




The Wires

I spend a lot of time staring at telephone wires. I'm not sure why; maybe I just look up at the clouds, and there they are. In any event, as I look at the wires I wonder if data is traversing even as I watch, and this provokes a new question.

How vulnerable are those wires? If I can look at them from fifty feet away, what would prevent someone with the technical capability from getting a bit closer, perhaps intercepting that data and...what? How would someone tap into that data, and why would they do it?


A Network of Networks

As it turns out, the Internet isn't just those wires across from my house, but is a network of networks. As data leaves my PC it goes through my router, into the wall jack, out of my house, across the public telephone network, to my ISP, or Internet Service Provider, which connects me to a larger network, which connects me to a larger network, which at some point routes my message to a smaller network, and smaller, until my data reaches its specific destination, perhaps a server in a rack in a building somewhere, or maybe to another PC on another desk in another house, somewhere.


Packet Switching

The data that makes this journey does not do so in one big chunk. Rather, it is divided up into smaller chunks, called packets, and each packet travels alone to its destination. Upon arrival, all of the individual packets are reassembled into the original big chunk. This technology is called packet-switching.

Each one of these packets can take a different route to get from the originating computer to the destination computer. Thus, if you send a message from New York to San Diego, some of your packets may go through St. Louis, some may go through Austin, Texas, some may go through Denver. They may all go the same way, or they may take different routes.

This is determined by devices called routers, specialized computers that maintain lists of known network device addresses. The routers ‘know’ where there is congestion on the Net, where segments may be down, and what the quickest pathway is at that moment. This analysis is constant, and occurs in milliseconds.

Where is It?

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 and untold trillions of bytes of data flow everywhere.

Some of that data is yours. I know it is, because you are reading this, but this leads back to the question of how the data could be tapped, and why.


The NSA, Utah, and You.

The NSA is currently building the largest spy center ever, in Utah, which will be capable of intercepting and storing everything. Using modern data analysis tools suspicious patterns can be isolated, and investigations enabled.

The government is not interested in the online communications of ninety-nine per cent of the population, including (hopefully) you and me. So why then are they storing everything in massive databases?

Here's a link to more information on the NSA facility:

http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2012/03/ff_nsadatacenter/all/1

According to this next article, "the government currently possesses copies of almost all emails sent and received in the United States."

http://bgr.com/2012/08/27/u-s-government-domestic-surveillance-citizens-nsa-freedom/

Even Google reports that government surveillance is increasing:

http://www.cnn.com/2012/11/13/tech/web/google-transparency-report/index.html?hpt=hp_bn5

Blurring of Lines

The Internet is mainly a commercial enterprise, with telecom companies running and maintaining major fiber optic backbones nationwide. The number of servers, routers and switches that make up the Internet is phenomenal, and the number of miles of fiber optic cable immense, and growing.

It is also largely invisible, and not understood very well by the public.

The government has a vested interest in knowing whether terrorist plots are being hatched across the infrastructure, but at what point is that interest at odds with the privacy rights of the 99%? More to the point, what if we have no way to even know when those rights are threatened?

Technology makes communication easier, but it also makes it more susceptible to violation. Just keep that in mind the next time you click send.


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