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Wild, Wild Web: Policing An Early, Lawless Internet

Today's Internet users have become accustomed to stories of hacking, identity theft and cyberattacks, but there was a time when the freedom and anonymity of the Web were new, and no one was sure what rules — if any — applied to its use. Many thought the Internet was beyond government regulation, its very chaos a source of creativity and strength.

Those early days are the focus of technology writer Nate Anderson's new book, The Internet Police: How Crime Went Online, and the Cops Followed. In it, Anderson recounts how the opportunities the Web offered to snoops, scam artists, spammers and pornographers inevitably drew the attention of law enforcement, which had to try to master technology to find and catch its targets.

Anderson joins Fresh Air's Dave Davies to discuss the history of Internet havens and how law enforcement responded to the lawlessness of the Net.

Interview Highlights

On the beginning of unrestricted Internet havens

"Back in the 1990s and the early years of the 2000s, one of the great dreams [that] people associated with the Internet was this idea that this new invention, these new technologies that were now global, had basically done away with the old national/political boundaries.

"You see this, most remarkably, with the case of Sealand — which was this rusting fort in the North Sea a few miles off the coast of the United Kingdom — in which some Americans went over there, brought some computers, got an Internet link established from out there in the water on this platform and decided to offer hosting services to anyone in the world. So if your country said pornography was illegal, if your country said gambling was illegal, if your country said certain kinds of political speech was illegal, no problem. Come to us. We'll host it. And the idea was that no one could do anything about this. ... This was an attempt to evade national law."

The plan for Sealand's offshore Internet haven, known as HavenCo

"The vision was fairly grandiose. It was going to be [that] the legs of this tower were going to be filled with computer servers; they were going to be filled with an unbreathable gas, making it very difficult for saboteurs or anyone else to enter the tower. Your data would be totally safe. It was supposed to have high-speed Internet links back to the U.K. and other points on the European Continent. These guys had guns; they had a security force in case anyone came knocking on the door. It was really designed as a fortress bunker out there in the sea that would simply be resistant to any attempt to take down your content."

On how law enforcement uses hacking techniques to shut down cybercrime

"When they bust somebody, they can get most of these guys to plead guilty. In [one child pornography] bust, despite how large it was, only one guy went to trial. Everyone else [pleaded] guilty. And as part of those details, often what the government requested was that they turned over their passwords in these communities, and usernames, and federal agents assumed those identities. And to the outsiders, there's almost no way to tell that you're now dealing with a fed. That encouraged a lot of paranoia and suspicion within these communities, especially when somebody would be gone for a few days, or maybe their tone or choice of words change after a while. 'Well,' you think to yourself, 'is that just normal or have we been infiltrated? Am I dealing with a cop?' "

On accessing other people's files, photos and live conversations

"You do not have to be a hacker to do this anymore. In some research I did after writing the book, I spent some time in an entire Web community that exists around this practice, which they call RAT-ing, Remote Administration Tool. These are basically pieces of software that once you can get them on someone else's computer provides you total access to their machine, but surreptitiously. They don't know it's there; they don't know it's running."

On how software can be installed without your knowing

"You can do it [by opening an email]; you can approach them on instant messaging pretending to be a friend of theirs; you can put fake songs out there of pop music on peer-to-peer file sharing that people download thinking they're getting a song, turns out to be one of these files. One of the things these guys do is spend a lot of time sharing their techniques for how they spread this stuff."

Nate Anderson is a senior editor at Ars Technica. His work has also been published in <em>The Economist</em> and <em>Foreign Policy</em>.
Emma Saperstein / Courtesy W.W. Norton & Co.
Courtesy W.W. Norton & Co.
Nate Anderson is a senior editor at Ars Technica. His work has also been published in The Economist and Foreign Policy.

On new NSA regulations that are being discussed

"The [regulations will] open people's eyes to just how dramatic this sort of surveillance looks like in practice. It's one thing to talk about electronic surveillance; it's another to really understand just how wide-ranging the net can be when you have computers scooping up data from fiber-optic taps, when you get every phone call made by everyone in the U.S.

"The NSA is going to look a lot more like some of these hackers in the book who are operating without many rules. I think that has already made people uncomfortable. My sense is we're going to see some rule changes intended to promote greater comfort in this. ... Whether that is going to satisfy the critics of what has been going on, I think it will really depend on the strength of the public reaction to mobilize a bipartisan agreement in Congress."

Copyright 2020 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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