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Tightening the Net: Be careful what you wish for

16 May 2013

Alan Pearce

We all know how it works. PA flashes up another horrific murder and journalists quickly scramble around for a broader scapegoat. The appalling murders of Tia Sharp and April Jones and then Drummer Lee Rigby all sparked calls for greater control over the Internet and the Press was quick to bang the drum.

But be careful what you wish for, because the very tools apparently needed to track the terrorists and child killers will very likely be turned against us.

While Home Secretary Theresa May might not have any actual evidence that the killers in Woolwich conspired via email or Facebook, she was happy to use the murder to resurrect the Snooper's Charter allowing government agencies to monitor all our online activities; and most papers and broadcasters were happy to give her the platform.

But, as it happens, terrorists don't openly post their intentions on Twitter and paedophiles won't find much child pornography via Google.

Not that this bothers The Sun's Justice Campaigners who are clamouring for restrictions to be placed on search engines and for Google to fund an Internet Police Force. But many of their demands are unworkable because they don't seem to understand the technology available to those who really want to hide things or stay anonymous.

Meanwhile, the Internet Watch Foundation – which seeks to combat child abuse on the Internet – devotes times and energy to labelling as child pornography an album cover by the band Scorpion when the real visual evidence of child abuse – including nightmare-inducing pre-teen hurtcore – is readily available on some of the Internet's so-called hidden networks. Why don't The Sun's Justice Campaigners do something about that?

Any terrorist worth their salt stays well clear of the Internet. Osama bin Laden – in common with a little over half of all Internet users – didn't have a Facebook page. He used couriers to pass on important information and they didn't have smartphones in their pockets. Even most activists are savvy enough to use the Deep Web to stay below the radar of MI5 and the FBI.

You really have to ask yourself if the politicians and apparent experts are missing something vital here by always looking in the wrong place or whether there are ulterior motives in wanting to begin restricting areas of the Internet and following everyone around.

When Iceland recently announced a ban on all internet pornography, it set its hopes on a technique known as Deep Packet Inspection that can monitor pretty much everything online. But it can also block websites and even specific items such as a particular video on YouTube. All Internet traffic can be read, copied or modified, as can webpages.

Very soon in the US, the National Security Agency's Utah Data Centre will be on-stream, capturing all communication globally including the contents of all emails and Internet searches, plus the data trails from parking receipts, bank transfers, travel itineraries and book purchases.

Welcome to "predictive policing" and the "paradigm of prevention" and the plot of the film Minority Report come to life. The CIA actually admits that "it is nearly within our grasp to compute on all human generated information":

And this is how they are beginning to monitor everyone. Today, everything is connected, everything communicates and everything is a sensor. Technology is moving so fast that even the major agencies can't keep up. Put all these things together and the inanimate becomes sentient and capable of decision-making, and we should all start to worry.

Journalists are prime targets in this new digital battle ground. They have contact with politicians and activists, they have their finger on the pulse and they are capable of causing all kinds of trouble both to governments and to corporations.

Washington monitors domestic journalists under the National Operations Center's Media Monitoring Initiative and other US agencies are now targeting foreign journalists following recent amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

With greater controls over the Internet and creeping restrictions placed on search engines, journalists will easily arouse suspicion in a suspicious world. Start researching sensitive subjects like child sexual abuse or visiting extremist websites and a tracking device will quickly be planted in your computer to follow you around and report back.

Once they have an interest in you they will never let go. They will take control of your computer and smartphone, switching on webcams and microphones, and listening in on Skype calls and watching everything you do, even in the dark. They will monitor your entire digital life with tools like RIOT. Simply enter a person's name and up pops a colourful graph showing where they have been all day, who they met and what they all look like. It then predicts their future movements, too.

One would imagine that News International executives and reporters are fed up with the police combing through their emails. Surely, they don't want all of their business and personal data, notes, contacts, search queries and call logs accessible at will from any police terminal and, of course, open to the private sector.

And I doubt if any future whistleblower or confidential sources will every trust a journalist again when they realise that the Press has been compromised by the very laws it helped enact.

Alan Pearce is the author of the new e-book 'Deep Web for Journalists: Comms, Counter-surveillance, Search' published by Deep Web Guides.

Tags: , deep web, snoopers' charter, privacy, new media, surveillance, communications data bill, google, the sun, government uk, youtube, whistleblowers, protection of sources, news international