Web inventor Berners-Lee sounds alarm on mass spying

Sir Tim Berners-Lee says the activities of the NSA and its UK counterpart, the GCHQ, could warp his baby, making the Internet vulnerable to attack and depriving humanity of a "safe space" for problem solving.

Edward Moyer Senior Editor
Edward Moyer is a senior editor at CNET and a many-year veteran of the writing and editing world. He enjoys taking sentences apart and putting them back together. He also likes making them from scratch. ¶ For nearly a quarter of a century, he's edited and written stories about various aspects of the technology world, from the US National Security Agency's controversial spying techniques to historic NASA space missions to 3D-printed works of fine art. Before that, he wrote about movies, musicians, artists and subcultures.
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Edward Moyer
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Sir Tim Berners-Lee Dani Pozo/AFP/Getty Images

Web creator Sir Tim Berners-Lee doesn't want the NSA to ruin his invention.

In an interview with the UK's Guardian newspaper, publisher of many of the spying revelations culled from NSA documents nicked by Edward Snowden, Berners-Lee said mass surveillance undermines human potential and called efforts to circumvent online privacy "foolish."

He also said the control mechanisms meant to rein in the NSA and its British counterpart, the GCHQ, are "dysfunctional" and that whistle-blowers are essential for oversight.

"When you take away the safe space, you take away a lot of the power of human problem solving," Berners-Lee said, referring to an Internet free of the fear of spying, where wide-open conversations could take place without self-censorship.

As for the NSA's efforts to crack encryption and introduce back doors into Net technologies in order to spy, Berners-Lee said such moves would come back to haunt the agency, which is also charged with defending the US from attacks on its crucial computer systems. "It's naive to imagine that if you introduce a weakness into a system you will be the only one to use it," he said.

Berners-Lee acknowledged the need for law enforcement on the Internet, but he said a free press, and those who turn to it to get the word out, are needed to make sure things don't get out of hand.

"Whistle-blowers, and responsible media outlets that work with them, play an important role in society," Berners-Lee said. "We need powerful agencies to combat criminal activity online -- but any powerful agency needs checks and balances, and based on recent revelations it seems the current system of checks and balances has failed."

The US Congress is currently hashing out various reforms to the legal mechanisms designed to control the NSA. And the Guardian reports that Britain will see an "unprecedented" hearing Thursday, when the chiefs of the three secret services there -- MI5, MI6, and GCHQ -- will testify before parliament's intelligence and security committee.

NSA critics march in the capital (pictures)

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