The Internet Police: How Crime Went Online, and the Cops Followed

  • Nate Anderson
  • W.W. Norton & Company
  • 320 pp.
  • Reviewed by
  • August 19, 2013

In a summer full of stories about Internet privacy, this book tracks the history of online crime and surveillance.

Nate Anderson’s The Internet Police, a comprehensive history of governments’ attempts to corral the online universe into more controllable form, is hitting bookstores at a particularly auspicious moment. Edward Snowden, the former government contractor who leaked information about the National Security Agency’s secretive surveillance programs to The Guardian, has won temporary asylum in Russia. Bradley Manning, the U.S. Army private who fed a large trove of government data to WikiLeaks, has been convicted on several charges of espionage. We are in the Summer of Paranoia, where everybody seems to be making uneasy jokes about shadowy Feds spying on us via Google and Facebook.

Anderson’s book doesn’t touch on the Snowden incident — it was well into production when the news broke — but it nonetheless serves as an effective primer for anyone looking to catch up on what’s been happening in the shady realms of online anarchy and surveillance. The author begins with HavenCo, a company founded on the idea that Sealand, “a rusting North Sea naval fort seven miles off the English coast,” could be transformed into a “true libertarian paradise” where anyone could store data without fear of government intrusion. This was back in 2000 — ancient history by Internet standards. HavenCo failed, but its spiritual successors live on: entities such as MegaUpload and Silk Road, dedicated to letting people do anything they want —or at least swap pirated movies and illegal drugs — via the magic of cyberspace.

Anderson details various governments’ efforts to monitor and control this new Wild West. A wide alliance of European and U.S. police seizes computers and tracks IP addresses in order to break up child pornography rings; the U.S. Congress passes laws against spammers; the FBI builds tools to eavesdrop on Internet activity. Joining the legislatures and law-enforcement agencies are record companies and tech firms with an interest in protecting their intellectual property.

These entities manage to arrest all sorts of villains, shut down spam networks and sue a handful of song-downloading folk into bankrupt oblivion. But the Internet is unstoppable; no sooner is one “threat” neutralized than another pops up in new and more advanced form. As it turns out, people really like keeping their data secret (sometimes with good reason) and getting their entertainment for free.

The book does an excellent job of delineating the positive and negative qualities of each “side.” Government and law enforcement want to keep people safe, but occasionally they overstep boundaries — censoring material normally protected by free-speech laws, or invading the privacy of people innocent of any real crime. On the libertarian side of the equation, many hackers and programmers have an honorable interest in building software that helps people protect and share data — but unfortunately many of their creations end up in the hands of spammers, drug dealers and worse.

“We need the Internet police,” Anderson concludes, “but we need to keep a close eye on them — and on their tools.”

That’s certainly the theme of the summer. At several points during his narrative, Anderson describes a U.S. government that’s edged up to the line of total online surveillance, but never crossed it due to the incredible cost and potential legal trouble of widespread Internet wiretaps. Snowden’s recent revelations about the extent of the NSA’s surveillance programs, which reportedly capture everything from phone-call metadata to emails, make Anderson’s descriptions of the government’s reach seem just the slightest bit dated. The Internet Police is only just released, but the speed of current events means it could already use a few extra chapters.

Nick Kolakowski is an editor at Slashdot. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, McSweeney’s, The Evergreen Review, Satellite Magazine, Carrier Pigeon and Washington City Paper. His first book, a work of comedic nonfiction titled How to Become an Intellectual, was published by Adams Media in 2012.

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