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[Op-Ed] Internet Interception

Posted November. 18, 2009 08:51,   


In the 1998 movie “Enemy of the State,” actor Will Smith plays a lawyer was chased by agents from the National Security Agency. Armed with the latest technologies such as micro-mini tracking devices, the agents keep a close eye on the lawyer’s every move. The film is a testament to the rapid development of information communication technologies that enables a democratic nation to degenerate into a totalitarian state by urging intelligence to control the personal lives of individuals. In George Orwell’s novel “1984,” everything about Winston Smith’s life is supervised by “Big Brother,” which represents absolute power, and even his emotions are controlled. In the novel, Big Brother uses telescreens and microphones for monitoring.

In the information era, governments watch individuals not only in movies and novels but also in the real world. Echelon is a cooperative system to monitor communication joined by five nations -- the U.S., Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Its earth stations monitor international satellite communications and use spy satellites to monitor ground communication of other nations. By doing so, the system can monitor almost all communications. In January, former National Security Agency analyst Russell Tice said the agency used all kinds of communication devices to spy on all Americans.

In Korea, the National Intelligence Service recently told the parliamentary committee on information that it introduced devices to spy on “packets,” or sliced pieces of data, in 1998, owned eight such devices until the end of the Roh Moo-hyun administration, and bought 23 more between last year and this year. The devices are designed to intercept and reconstruct packets. Packet interception allows users to monitor Internet Web sites, search results of others, and read details of online chatting and e-mail messages in real time.

Investigators should seek warrants before spying on packets. If they get approval, they can look at data transmitted via a certain circuit and monitor Web surfing and e-mail at once. Spying on packets can be a useful tool to find criminals who compromise national security. Yet safeguards should be set up to prevent the government from abusing its power and violating basic rights of the people.

Editorial Writer Park Seong-won (swpark@donga.com)