Cyber-Reality Check:
Big Brother On The Internet

QUESTION: What happens when millions of people are able to share information in ways that bypass the official nerve centers of news and culture?

ANSWER: The rulers of this system consider it a big problem. Police are sent out to spy on the people. New laws are written to impose censorship. And millions of dollars are spent to guarantee that the enforcers of capitalism are able to regulate, observe and punish.

This is happening today with the international computer network called the Internet. The Internet has become a prime target for the spying and dirty tricks of the political police of many countries.

Over the last decade, more and more people have started to use computers to talk to each other--sending computer letters called "e-mail" over telephone lines and connecting to different kinds of bulletin boards, information archives, and graphic pages called "Web sites." The biggest network for this is the Internet--a kind of "network of networks" that connects thousands of smaller regional networks in about 70 countries. On the Internet, computer users are able to set up discussion groups that quickly pass around news and opinions over long distances.

Progressive activists, especially college students, have started using the Internet to "post" information exposing the system and organizing demonstrations. During the 1992 Gulf War, the Internet played a significant role in organizing antiwar protests. There are Internet discussion lists that defend affirmative action and expose government attacks on immigrants. When armed peasants rose up in Mexico a few years ago, news and manifestos from Chiapas were posted on the Internet and read in dozens of countries--bypassing the usual tight control imposed by official network news. And throughout the ongoing campaign to save the life of imprisoned Black revolutionary Mumia Abu-Jamal--several Internet sites have provided information and commentary to Mumia supporters, including a popular Web site maintained by Refuse & Resist.

The Internet was created as a way of linking together technical elites that serve capitalism--including those involved in military research and business dealings. And, despite its rapid growth, that is still mainly what the Internet is. Oppressed people are very aware that this "information superhighway" doesn't pass through their neighborhoods. Only about four million people (out of six billion people on Earth) are hooked into the Internet--and they are overwhelmingly concentrated in the privileged strata of the most privileged countries. In the U.S., computers are concentrated among the wealthier classes and among college students--while computers are almost non-existent in ghettos (where the schools often don't even provide decent desks or textbooks). On a world scale, the majority of people don't even have telephones. In short, the so-called "world community" of the Internet reflects all the extreme inequalities and lopsidedness of the worldwide capitalist market.

However, the ruling class has shown a deep concern that some corners of this Internet may work against them. Some activists on the Internet talk of "fighting for an information infrastructure that empowers rather than brainwashes." And the authorities are working overtime to squash such dreams. The official press runs a constant drum beat about the need to control "hackers, child pornographers and terrorists lurking in cyberspace." Such propaganda is intended to create public support for wiretapping and censoring the Internet.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the political police are already highly active on the Internet. Covert police operations on the Internet are a significant part of the even larger moves by the ruling class to wage war on the people and tighten police control over millions.

The intelligence agencies on the Internet are trying, as always, to keep their pig-tails hidden. And, in that, they have had some success: While there has been much discussion over growing government censorship of the Internet, many people simply don't know about the extent of government spying operations. There are developments here that all conscious and oppressed people need to know about. *****

"The Internet offers intelligence agencies an amazing potential source for information collection and for monitoring the activities of their targets. They not only can plug into communications through the names of senders and receivers of e-mail, but also through keyword monitoring of messages as they have done for many years. If you add e-mail to their monitoring of telephone and other credit card transactions, they can get a very complete picture of a given person's activities."

former CIA officer Philip Agee

Last summer, a Pentagon analyst for "Special Operations and Low-Intensity Warfare" named Charles Swett wrote a 30-page report for his bosses in the Department of Defense (DoD). It laid out how to use the Internet for military intelligence and counterintelligence. The Federation of American Scientists exposed this report--posting a copy on their Internet Web page for everyone to read.

Swett's Pentagon report warns that the Internet can be used to spread news about U.S. wars and atrocities in a way the U.S. government and the official media can't control. And Swett warns that information can create difficult political conditions for conducting some operations. But at the same time, Swett describes ways for U.S. military intelligence to exploit the Internet for its purposes:

The operations Swett discusses are in addition to the Pentagon's use of the Internet for conventional war. During the Gulf War, General Colin Powell told Byte magazine (July 1992) that the modern "battlespace" now has an "infosphere." Defense officials say that 25 percent of the Pentagon's logistics communications during the Gulf War were sent back and forth over the Internet uncoded.

There is evidence that political police are already applying techniques Swett discusses. And the Pentagon's military intelligence is far from the only police agency involved.

According to Wired writer Brock N. Meeks, an FBI spokesperson named Settle admitted that, in 1992, the FBI started actively recruiting "net literate" agents with computer science degrees and experience in network administration. Two years later, Settle reported, the FBI had a team of 25 such agents.

There are also "unofficial" pigs openly announcing their intention to help the political police spy on the Internet. Journalist Daniel Brandt (in an article made available on various Internet sites through NameBase NewsLine) reports that the Anti-Defamation League's Tom Halpern announced that the ADL is "undertaking efforts to monitor the activities of Muslim extremists and others on the Internet." The Anti-Defamation League has a long history of carrying out spying that police cannot legally do. Halpern made it clear what the ADL would do with its spy information: "When evidence arises that a posting constitutes or encourages illegal activities, naturally we'd bring it to the attention of law enforcement."

An Internet posting by InterPress Service (May 4, 1995) revealed that the United Nations had sponsored an international police conference in Cairo in May 1995 where more than 140 national delegations discussed police use of computers, the Internet and other "new media" to surveil and capture people.

The Visible Hoofprints

There have already been some publicized cases of aggressive police spying and entrapment, both on the Internet and over private computer networks like Compuserve and America Online (AOL). The cases reported in the press usually involve pornography rings and young hackers breaking into government computers--so government agents can use "national security" and "decency" as justifications for more spying. These stories give an idea of the kinds of techniques the political police are likely to be using in unpublicized political surveillance.

In one operation, the FBI used a technique called "the honeypot": With the cooperation of the America Online corporation, the police created a computer site that provided illegal pornographic materials. For two years they made lists of people interested in such materials, and entrapped them in illegal acts. More than 120 homes were raided and searched. (Associated Press, September 14, 1995).

With the passage in Congress of the so-called "Communications Decency Act," the FBI got long-sought legal powers to pressure the companies who maintain bulletin board sites. This February, soon after this law was passed, a special three-judge panel was set up to hear legal challenges to this censorship law. The FBI publicly agreed to wait until the legal issues were settled before starting any online investigations. However, in secret, they started investigations anyway. The New York Times reported (May 11) that the FBI opened a secret spy operation investigating Compuserve, the huge corporate online network. When confronted, the FBI said they were investigating "indecent materials"--after complaints about Compuserve were sent to them by the Christian-fascist "American Family Association."

The magazine Internet Today (May 1996) describes a murder case in which the police confiscated the home computers of the murder victim and the suspected murderer--and had America Online turn over records of the e-mail the two had exchanged. This reveals legal powers police investigators are using to seize e-mail. In this case, some of the e-mail records had supposedly been deleted, however AOL recovered the records for the police.

Nineteen-year-old Christopher Schanot was arrested in Philadelphia and accused of belonging to an "Internet Liberation Front" that allegedly breaks into military computers and carries out other "anti-commercial" hacking. Schanot faces a possible 30 years in prison.

Some cases reveal international police cooperation in patrolling and controlling computer links:

In one important case, Interpol (an international police organization) had the Finnish police raid an Internet site that had been providing a valuable service for people who don't want their e-mail addresses listed on their Internet messages. Some anti-government forces have used this famous site known as to protect their identity while on line. It strips the revealing addresses off e-mail, and sends the now-anonymous e-mail on to its final destination. However, on February 1995, a posting appeared signed by Julf, the administrator of It said "Based on a request from Interpol, the Finnish police have gotten a search-and-seizure warrant on my home and the server, and gotten the real mail address of a user that has allegedly posted material stolen from the Church of Scientology. Fortunately I managed to prevent them from getting more than this one, single address." International police forces want everyone participating on the Internet to be traceable.

In another case, U.S. authorities had Argentinian police arrest a young computer user who, they said, had broken into U.S. military computers.

Sometimes the political police use "covert operations" to suppress Internet sites. One tactic has been so-called "e-mail bombing"--the political police and allied reactionary forces send a massive wave of e-mail messages to a site they want to suppress (often one that is operating outside their country's borders). The deluge of messages are intended to overload the phone lines of the business that provides the site's Internet connection.

Last year, such an "e-mail bombing" hit a Basque separatist electronic magazine "Euskadi Information," which was sharply criticizing the Spanish government from a Web site based in Switzerland. The harassing e-mails caused the Swiss Internet provider to temporarily close down the Euskadi site.

Signs of Cyber-COINTELPRO

Recent U.S. government moves to expand its surveillance of telecommunications (see the accompanying article, "The Push To Wiretap") make it clear that anyone using the Internet should assume that their communications could be intercepted and studied by the political police. All discussions and disputes that take place over the Internet can be read by the police agents.

Unfortunately, some political forces encourage Internet practices that make valuable information available to the police. For example, on PNEWS, a discussion list for left-leaning activists, the list administrator encourages new subscribers to publicly "introduce" themselves--often listing their real names, political histories, inclinations and activities. The Communist Party USA (an outfit with pro-system politics behind a phony communist facade) even asks its supporters to sign up for party membership over the Internet--in full view of the political police.

Many activist groups and networks now conduct large parts of their internal life through e-mail exchanges on the Internet--discussing recruitment, gossip, leadership, meetings and even conducting major political disputes. Such practices produce networks and movements that are extremely vulnerable to police observation, infiltration and manipulation.

The well-documented FBI COINTELPRO operations of the 1960s and '70s used information gathered through spies to undermine anti-government movements--especially revolutionary organizations like the Black Panthers. In addition to notorious cases of FBI assassination, COINTELPRO operatives spread lies, false documents and rumors. After they identified political disagreements, they worked to fan them into hostile (and even violent) splits. COINTELPRO agents spread wild accusations--"bad-jacketing" revolutionaries with the label "police agent." They worked to create a vicious, ugly atmosphere--to turn honest people away from the revolutionary struggle. And the COINTELPRO's favorite tactic was to do these things from behind the scenes--using anonymous letters and rumors spread by hidden infiltrators.

Many things happening on the Internet suggest that COINTELPRO has spread into cyberspace. Whenever radical politics is discussed in open forums on the Internet--disruptive elements flock in like flies, often ranting and insulting until everyone is driven away. There are many cases of people posting ridiculous lies about progressive and revolutionary forces, often in ways that seem designed to create confusion and divisions among honest people.

There have also been incidents of people demanding inside information about progressive and revolutionary groups or demanding the "real names" of activists who participate in Internet discussions.

It is always hard to say for sure if a suspicious activity is the work of a fool or of a conscious police agent. But this much can be said: Any serious person watching the political discussions and disputes on the Internet will see many activities that resemble the classic disinformation and wrecking activities of the COINTELPRO. Anyone using the Internet, downloading its posted information or thinking about participating in discussion groups should be vigilant about the enemy's tricks.


Many people using the Internet dream of using modern computer technology to bring humanity closer together, to make all kinds of information broadly available, to "empower" people and to weaken the hold of centralized government and corporate centers. However, under capitalism, such dreams are brushed aside by the needs of the system. The Internet is being privatized and commercialized. All kinds of "credit card gates" and "ID systems" are being installed to identify who goes where, and to control what they see there. Plans are being made to create an approved "Internet mainstream"--and to shut down the corners of cyberspace that resist central control.

The ruling class has no intention of allowing new technologies to "empower" anyone but themselves. And when progressive people see opportunities to link up and spread a little valuable information--the system's police stand ready to spy and disrupt, with the active backing of Congress, corporations and the White House itself. Such operations thrive in the dark: they must be exposed, opposed and countered.