Economy

On Cyber-Security And Big Brother, From An Internet Founding Father

You probably have never heard of French engineer Louis Pouzin. But you might not be reading this website without him. At 82, he offers a unique perspective on Edward Snowden, and us all.

Louis Pouzin has known about what Snowden revealed since 2005
Louis Pouzin has known about what Snowden revealed since 2005
Eric Albert

PARIS - The French engineer who is credited with inventing the precursor to the Internet has been voicing concern about lack of privacy and Internet security for years now.

Under the roof of Buckingham Palace, in front of the British prime minister and from the hands of the Queen herself, Louis Pouzin received the 2013 Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering last month. Louis who, you say? Pouzin, an 82-year-old French-born and educated engineer and polytechnician (from the famed École Polytechnique).

While the Frenchman remains virtually unknown, in the 1970s he created a technique essential to the development of the global network we now call the Internet. From 1971 to 1975, Pouzin directed a network project called Cyclades, and during that time invented what's known as a datagram. This technology allowed a user to send data packets as a whole by allowing them to travel separately, only to meet as a whole again on the other end. The idea seemed promising at the time, but even he admits that he didn’t expect the Internet to have the global reach it does.

"The concept was to simply exchange data between scientists," he says.

A few years later, as French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing came to power, research priorities changed and funding to his laboratory was cut.

That could have been the end of it. But his technique was picked up by two Americans, Robert Kahn and Vinton Cerf, who developed what we now call the Internet. After that, a British man, Tim Berners-Lee, created the World Wide Web and another American launched a browser called Mosaic. The invention then became available for large audiences. Together, the five men set the foundations of what has been a constant and unstoppable information revolution for 25 years. On June 25, they were reunited so they could all receive this year's Queen Elizabeth million-pound Prize for Engineering.

The good pioneer that he is, Pouzin couldn’t just sit back and enjoy his 40-year-old invention. He has created a start-up business (more on that later) to address some of what he regards as the Internet's inherent weaknesses. Lack of security is particularly troubling to him, and it's even more bothersome since the vast U.S. National Security Agency's cyber-surveillance PRISM operation came to light last month following the revelations of former operative Edward Snowden.

“I’ve known about this since 2005," he says. "The NSA created an industrial system as soon as 2002 to copy whatever was circulating on the network, and they used to do that with the help of AT&T. But back in 2005, an AT&T engineer talked to The New York Times.” No one took a stand at the time.

"It was the Bush years," Pouzin recalls. "When Obama’s team stepped in, they not only kept this thing going, but voted laws to retroactively clear all the collaborating companies. The senators act as if they were oblivious to this practice, but they knew. The information was out, but no one wanted to speak up."

Of course, the United States is not the only country to use cyber-surveillance. Pouzin reminds us that France sold the company Amesys, which created the original espionage software used by Muammar Gaddafi’s Libyan regime. He estimates that some 50 countries have carried out similar "Big Brother" operations.

"We'll deal with that later..."

Mafias can also carry out large-scale fraud by exploiting the flaws of the Internet. "The Internet was first conceived without security measures," Pouzin says. "The idea of it being used by crooks was marginal. We used to say, "We'll deal with that later." There never seemed to be any urgency."

To fix the situation, the engineer suggests a global collaboration to create common standards, including a security layer. "What we need is a communal tool box in which everyone could help himself," he says. "It would be mandatory to show clean hands to be granted access."

He denounces the use of certificates. These ID keys are on every computer and supposedly can’t be breached. They secure the user’s data by identifying him. "Most of the time, you receive certificates without knowing — from Microsoft, for instance. This is why you get an alert saying: "Your certificates have expired. Do you want to continue?" Almost everyone answers "yes." The problem is they are defined by American sources. It’s very hard to check whether they are legitimate.”

Pouzin doesn’t believe there is a global conspiracy orchestrated by the U.S., but he does think the U.S. has too much control over the global network. One example is the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the American company that owns the monopoly of domain names on the Internet.

"In theory, nothing stops you from creating any kind of domain name such as .lemonde, for instance," he says. But ICANN is reluctant, and about that Pouzin is critical. The idea of submitting new names was approved in 2008, but it is not always implemented.

Pouzin is also circumspect about international Internet norms as defined by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). "Eighty percent of those norms are carried out by engineers working for American companies. It doesn’t mean those standards are bad, but it means they have a commercial advantage." It is in the interest of challenging this domination that Pouzin created Open-Root, a start-up company that allows users to create domain names outside of ICANN's offerings.

In other words, 40 years after his invention, Pouzin the engineer remains true to his calling.

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Coronavirus

Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."


Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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