You are being watched. That’s the message investigative journalist Yasha Levine wants to convey. And, as he is about to demonstrate, you really shouldn’t be surprised.
By taking us on a history lesson of the internet and the people responsible for its creation, from its genesis during the Vietnam War via a military body called ARPA, to the use of the ARPANET by the US state in the 1960s and 70s to share data on political protestors and civil rights campaigners, Levine reveals that the internet was developed by the military, for military purposes. Surveillance, he says, was ‘baked in from the very beginning’.
This ‘secret military history’ seems to have been forgotten. In part two, Levine shifts to the 1990s, a time when PCs became common and seminal magazines such as Wired lauded the start of a new age. He examines how and why the internet was privatised and starts on the big tech companies, with a heavy focus on what he calls ‘Google’s surveillance business model’. Swiftly dismissing Google’s PR machine, which would have it seen as a geeky force for good, he examines its role as a government contractor and the fact that it, and other internet giants, provide a large range of services to the US military.
The final section is a work of pure investigative journalism and a story with a personal touch (Levine has been hounded by internet trolls for his work). In it, he plunges into the ‘dark web’ and Tor, the anonymisation system used to access it, revealing that this company, celebrated as a win for privacy against the snooping state, was actually developed and funded by the US government.
Surveillance Valley is a thorough telling of the internet story, though limited in scope by its focus on the US alone. While it is not a comforting or a light read, it is one that feels necessary in the current age. Though Levine attempts a hopeful ending, it is his insistence that ‘there is no escape’ that lingers longest, as he no doubt intended.
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