World Wide Web Inventor Warns It’s In Peril From Fake News, Government Spying

Tim Berners-Lee, the man who invented the World Wide Web 28 years ago, is worried that the Internet-based information system is in danger of becoming more harmful than helpful. And he wants to do something about it.

“Over the past 12 months, I’ve become increasingly worried about three new trends, which I believe we must tackle in order for the web to fulfill its true potential as a tool which serves all of humanity,” Berners-Lee said in a statement issued from London and quoted by USA Today.

Berners-Lee cited access to individuals’ personal data and fake news, which he said continues to “spread like wildfire” as two of the main threats to the World Wide Web.

“Even in countries where we believe governments have citizens’ best interests at heart, watching everyone, all the time is simply going too far,” Berners-Lee said. “It creates a chilling effect on free speech and stops the web from being used as a space to explore important topics, like sensitive health issues, sexuality or religion.”

His comment about governments “watching everyone” was likely a reference to WikiLeaks’ recent exposure of documents that show the CIA has developed an “impressive list” of ways to hack into the electronic devices of citizens to spy on them.

Berners-Lee is not the only one alarmed by the WikiLeaks disclosure. Several media sources have voiced concern over the CIA’s domestic spying program.

“A concerted effort by the CIA produced a library of software attacks to crack into Android smartphones and Apple iPhones, including some that could take full control of the devices, according to documents in a trove of files released by WikiLeaks,” Jenna McLaughlin wrote for the Intercept.

The attacks allow for varying levels of access — many powerful enough to allow the attacker to remotely take over the “kernel,” the heart of the operating system that controls the operation of the phone, or at least to have so-called “root” access, meaning extensive control over files and software processes on a device. These types of techniques would give access to information like geolocation, communications, contacts, and more. They would most likely be useful for targeted hacking, rather than mass surveillance. Indeed, one document describes a process by which a specific unit within the CIA ‘develops software exploits and implants for high priority target cellphones for intelligence collection.’

Privacy and digital rights advocates have also taken issue with the scope of the CIA’s hacking library.

“Access Now condemns the stockpiling of vulnerabilities, calls for limits on government hacking and protections for human rights, and urges immediate reforms to the Vulnerabilities Equities Process,” reads a press release posted to the website of Access Now, a digital rights group, in response to the WikiLeaks CIA documents.

Fake news is also a concern to Berners-Lee and others because of fears that it is affecting political elections and other social phenomena. Many critics have argued that fake news contributed to Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton in last year’s presidential race, for instance. There is ongoing research into its possible influences.

The use of the World Wide Web as a surveillance tool is not what Tim Berners-Lee had in mind when he envisioned it.

“When Berners-Lee submitted his original proposal for the Web, he imagined it as an open platform that would allow everyone, everywhere to share information, access opportunities and collaborate across geographic and cultural boundaries,” Jon Swartz writes in the USA Today article. “But his faith, and those of privacy advocates and cybersecurity experts, has been badly shaken by a series of high-profile hacks and the dissemination of fake news through the use of data science and armies of bots.”

[Featured Image by Brad Barket/Getty Images]