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Berners-Lee says snoop law could see spies blackmail soldiers

We know what you browsed, now hand over state secrets or we tell

World Wide Web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee has declared government collection of data on citizens web surfing and telephony activities “a very bad idea” after outlining a scenario in which he feels national security could be compromised by caches of armed forces' members online activities.

Speaking in Sydney at the launch of Australia's new Digital Productivity and Services Flagship, a think tank designed to boost productivity through cunning use of technology, Berners-Lee suggested that if governments are allowed to track citizen's use of phones and the internet, foreign spies will find it an irresistible hacking target.

The UK and Australia are both considering collection of such data, the former through the Communications Data Bill while the latter conducts public consultation on the topic.

Berners-Lee said he supports governments' rights to protect themselves, but that collecting data on web and phone use would mean they hold “a dossier” on individuals.

If the subject of such a dossier were a member of the armed forces and had been viewing naughty web sites, Berners-Lee suggested it "would allow a foreign power to exert a huge amount of pressure on a person” and went on to imply they may therefore be easily blackmailed. Such an outcome is, of course, dependent on spies finding their way into the database enabled by a web snoop law, but Berners-Lee said he cannot imagine a perfect security regime for such a database as doing so will require one agency to curate the data and enact requests to access it, and another to oversee the first agency and ensure its curation and service of access requests are conducted properly.

Berners-Lee said he is not aware of any nation that has created the first agency successfully, never mind the second, and that web snooping is therefore “massively dangerous and a bad idea.”

Web snooping is also undesirable, he said, as it could see web use fall as users fear the stigma of being flagged as having sought out sensitive information. Berners-Lee suggested a teenager who “really needs to visit a forum for professional advice” about their health, or looking for information on sexuality or other advice of a personal nature who chooses not do so from fear their activity would be tracked and that they could be identified in future as having had a particular health concern. Avoiding the web for that reason, he suggested, would mean some deny themselves access to useful knowledge, with potentially unfortunate consequences.

Another privacy issue Berners-Lee address was that of the surprisingly-accurate advertisements served to users of social media websites. Those ads, he said, have come to represent a privacy threat to many internet users, who have therefore become wary of sharing personal information. Berners-Lee hopes internet users can instead be encouraged to share more personal data. Smartphones could become passive trackers that record information about how much their owners exercise, he suggested (battery life permitting). When added to other data such as a patient's consumption of prescribed drugs, doctors would then have more data to work with and could offer better advice.

“We are missing personal integration of data,” he said. “We should not worry about the value of personal data to others and, think about value to me.” Berners-Lee also offered an interesting taxonomy of computer users, namely geeks, the connected and the disconnected. The latter lack the access to networks and computers that the connected possess. Geeks, in his definition, “can make a computer do something different,” a skill that brings with it the responsibility to think of ways to innovate with computers. Characterising HTML 5 as capable of turning any web page into a computer, Berners-Lee said “it is your duty as a geek to innovate.”

“If you can program a computer you can imagine one machine doing something so you can imagine another computer doing it too.” From such thinking, he believes, flow great applications, and those with the skills to try should not restrain themselves.

“Go for it,” he concluded. ®

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