Is your Internet data ending up in the NSA's hands?

Photo: Steve Rhodes/flickr

How many websites have you visited today? What about over the past week? How many emails have you sent? How many times have you logged onto Facebook? How often have you used Slack, Skype, or other instant messaging services?

If you're anything like me, you probably won't be able to answer these questions. Even as I write this piece, I have 16 tabs open in my browser, I'm logged into Facebook, and my office's instant messaging service is chirping away at me.

Fact is, the Internet has become such an interwoven part of my daily routine that it's impossible for me to keep track of how many websites I visit or emails I send in any given day. One of the best things about the Internet is that "it just works" -- that's why so few of us give any thought to what's actually happening to our data when we hit "send" on an email, click on a link, or tap "reply" to an instant message.

Unfortunately, what's actually happening to our data on its journey around the Internet has deeply concerning privacy implications for all of us. Over the years, spy agencies such as the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) have built incredibly powerful surveillance systems capable of collecting unimaginable quantities of our private communications data -- including emails, video and voice chats, photos, videos, stored data, and social networking details -- and analyzing it for anything supposedly "suspicious."

Although we like to think of the Internet as a "cloud," most of it relies on Internet Exchanges -- buildings that connect the most important Internet cables together. Although these Internet Exchanges ensure that our data reliably makes it from point A to point B, their physical nature makes us far more vulnerable to surveillance.

The NSA has taken advantage of this by installing listening posts -- or "splitter rooms" -- in key U.S. cities where Internet Exchanges are located. When your data travels through one of these Internet Exchanges it is almost certainly subject to being intercepted by the NSA, and stored at the main NSA Data Center in Utah. Once outside Canada, your data is treated by the NSA as foreign and loses Canadian legal and constitutional protections -- representing a major loss of privacy.

This threat has existed for years, but is even more concerning under the Trump administration, given his public statements about expanding surveillance, meaning the range of potential targets and "suspicious" behaviours is likely to be even greater than before.

What's even more worrying is that this surveillance is not restricted to when you visit a U.S. website, or send an email to someone south of the border. Led by Professor Andrew Clement, a team of experts at the University of Toronto and York University have been researching this extensively as part of the IXmaps project. They have concluded that significant amounts -- at least 25 per cent -- of domestic Canada-to-Canada data travels via the United States where it is subject to NSA surveillance.

This phenomenon is known as "boomerang routing": for example, an email sent from Vancouver to Toronto may "boomerang" via Chicago. Even an email sent from one part of Vancouver to another may travel via the U.S. -- largely as a result of years of monopolistic practices by major Canadian telecoms, poor regulatory oversight, and underinvestment in Canada's domestic Internet infrastructure and long-haul backbone capacity.

At OpenMedia, we've worked with IXmaps researchers on a new educational platform to raise awareness of these issues, in a project made possible by the financial support of the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada.

Our platform includes an informational video, a series of infographics, and a detailed FAQ to ensure you can learn more about where your data travels, and what happens to it on its journey. We even include some pointers to tools that anyone can use to better safeguard their privacy online. Check it out at OpenMedia.org/en/IXmaps

David Christopher is the communications manager for OpenMedia, a community-based organization that safeguards the possibilities of the open Internet.

Photo: Steve Rhodes/flickr

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