Surveillance of Internet Activity


The Internet is an efficient, but not particularly private, method of communication.

To begin with, whatever you say in a chat room or IRC channel is necessarily a public statement—you don’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy in this context. Using a nickname or handle doesn’t guarantee that you’re anonymous—such identifiers can generally be traced to their owners.

In addition, your Internet Service Provider (ISP) may have already put you on notice in their “Terms of Service” that, under certain circumstances, they’ll voluntarily disclose “content”—not just illegal content, but also material that may only be “vulgar” or “otherwise objectionable.” And with a simple subpoena, the government can obtain the content of users’ communications as well as information about users, including addresses and financial data (such as credit card or bank account numbers).

There has been an increasing amount of litigation and legislation concerning Internet privacy. For example, the USA PATRIOT Act1 allows law enforcement agencies to monitor Internet usage and communications to a high degree.

The USA PATRIOT Act extends the idea of pen registers and trap and trace devices to email. With an easily obtained court order, law enforcement can gather the addresses and routing information that are part of every email message. Yet there’s a big difference between phone calls and email. It’s easy to track phone numbers without listening to the content of phone conversations; but it’s hard to separate addresses and routing from the content of the email messages, because the information is packaged and transmitted together.

With somewhat more effort, the government can also get a wire-tap warrant for your email, which lays bare all aspects of your electronic communications.

The USA PATRIOT Act allows law enforcement agents to monitor “non-content” 2 web surfing, as long as they get a court order (for which they only need to state that the information is relevant to an ongoing criminal investigation). And the USA PATRIOT Act permits ISPs to give the government all “non-content” information about your online communications

To keep the content of your electronic communications private, encrypt them with PGP Mail. PGP stands for Pretty Good Privacy, and it’s been proven strong enough to deter government attempts to penetrate your email. To get the latest version of PGP Mail (either the complete version6 or the freeware version), go to http://www.philzimmermann.com/. (Note that Zimmermann ends with two n’s.).


1.  The USA PATRIOT Act (Uniting and Strengthening Americans by Providing Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001) was made law on 10/26/01.

2.  The USA PATRIOT Act repfers to "non-content" material, but this term has not yet been defined.

3.  The complete version comes with PGP Disk, an application that encrypts data on your computer and your storage media - an excellent idea!