When was the Internet ever secure?


A succession of governments around the world is warning against the use of Chinese-built technology, particularly in the routers that distribute Internet traffic. The concern is that within the chips that run these devices there are hidden “backdoors” that will allow Beijing’s spies to monitor sensitive communications. The Chinese manufacturers of this equipment, including Huawei, of course deny their products pose any sort of risk to those who use them.

Ever since the first use of telegraph wire, signals sent by electronic impulse have been open to interception. In the First World War combatants on both sides found out how to tap into each other’s fixed wire links. The arrival of radio “wireless” communications opened up a new avenue of interception and monitoring even when messages were heavily encrypted. The only system that ever flummoxed secret listeners in both the World Wars was the US use of “Code Talkers” to transmit messages using native American languages including Navajo, Cherokee, Choctaw and Comanche.

During the Cold War, the Soviets are believed to have tried to tap into the underwater Atlantic cable between Europe and the US. Meanwhile, though still classified, it is known that the American “Operation Ivy Bells” managed the selfsame trick, using a submerged submarine to connect to a Soviet subsea cable off the Russian coast.

In the 1950s and 60s, much of global telephone and telex traffic was carried by the UK’s Cable and Wireless Company which, it has been alleged, had close links to British and US intelligence. Almost 50 years ago, the Internet came into being thanks to the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) initiative funded by the US Department of Defense. It would seem entirely logical that the Pentagon has maintained a covert proprietorial interest in the extraordinary communications revolution that it brought about.

Those who are making a fuss about Chinese technology, including that for the new 5G mobile systems which are supposed to underpin the “Internet of things” including autonomous vehicles and extremely swift high-level security checks, must know that they are guilty of double standards. Governments and indeed corporations have been stealing each other’s secrets ever since those secrets were, one way or another, passed on using technology.

Google is currently in dispute with many of its employees over the production of a special version of its search engine that can be manipulated by Chinese censors and intelligence officials. Western governments argue, with some foundation, that Beijing already monitors the online behavior of its own citizens and controls what content can and cannot be seen. It would be a small step to try and exercise similar controls abroad. If the Chinese government was able to reach into large segments of the world’s infrastructure thanks to equipment its people have supplied, then in peacetime, its power to assert its own agenda would be considerable. In time of conflict, its dominance among international Internet routers could be a major deciding factor.

The Internet is part and parcel of the lives of most everyone around the world, not least here in the Kingdom. Even those who do not expose their private lives on social media are still open to distant observation. But paranoia is not the answer. The obvious solution is to ensure that matters that need to be kept confidential are not exposed to any online connections.