Wednesday, November 05, 2014

GCHQ boss calls for increased surveillance powers

A little over 400 years ago a man named Guy Fawkes conspired with others to blow up the House of Lords during the State Opening of England's Parliament [Wikipedia - Gunpowder_Plot]. He failed in his attempt after the plot was revealed to the authorities in an anonymous letter sent to William Parker, 4th Baron Monteagle, on 26th  October 1605. During a search of the House of Lords at about midnight on 4th November 1605, Fawkes was discovered guarding 36 barrels of gunpowder and he was arrested.

In more modern times security services are not always so lucky as to receive anonymous warnings related to potential terror attacks. Instead they have to be proactive and carry out surveillance on suspects they believe may be involved in the planning of atrocities.

In recent decades the security services and police have still relied on informants, but they have also infiltrated organisations and terror groups and conducted surveillance operations.

But in the advent of the Internet traditional surveillance is outdated.

Hiding on the Web

No longer is it possible to send in an undercover officer to hide amongst terror groups, animal rights activists and environmental groups.

In the past those involved in such groups would often meet in person, at pubs, in parks or other venues to discuss plans. Extremist Muslim groups might gather and meet up at mosques while animal rights activist would use the cover of demonstrations to organise and plan direct action.

But nowadays people hide themselves in the anonymity of the Web and more particularly the Dark Web.

The increased use of the Internet to organise and plot illegal activities has raised alarm in security circles. Whilst there is no absolute anonymity on the Net, it is more difficult for authorities to track individuals and identify potential attacks.

Calls for more surveillance

This week the UK's spy chief Robert Hannigan called for ISPs and tech companies to open up their networks to allow security services to conduct in depth data mining.

In an article published in the Financial Times Hannigan said Web giants such as Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp had become "command-and-control networks... for terrorists and criminals" and that they were "in denial" about how their services were being used [BBC / Sky News / Daily Mail].

Data mining

While it is true that terror groups such as ISIL and other extremists have used Facebook, YouTube and other platforms to disseminate their message, wholescale data mining would likely have little impact especially in the long term.

In the short term many individuals might well be identified. But in light of recent self-censorship by Twitter and Facebook concerning the posting of graphic beheading videos has shown, extremists have merely shifted to new platforms [Independent].

In the weeks that followed the deletion of material from Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, Islamic extremists siding with ISIL began to use Diaspora, a social network that by its very nature is harder to regulate and censor [tvnewswatch: Social media provides battle ground for terrorists].

Bitcoins, Tors, VPNs and the Dark Web

Surveillance is proving ever more difficult as those wishing to hide their Internet activities increasingly use specialist encryption software, web proxies and digital currencies.

The Tor network was originally developed with the US Navy in mind, for the primary purpose of protecting government communications.

However it has increasingly been used by ordinary members of the public wanting to hide their identity.

There are examples where many might see such use as legitimate. In China and Iran many people use Tor or VPNs [Virtual Private Network] to circumvent Internet censorship and communicate with people outside the country. Dissidents in such countries use such tools to avoid being arrested.

However, the Tor network and VPNs have increasingly been used by those wanting to share copyrighted material such as music and feature films without fear of prosecution. But while illegal, the sharing of ripped CDs and DVDs only hurts the profits of musicians, filmmakers and production companies.

But there are others using circumvention software to plan terrorist activities without being watched [BBC Click - online anonymity 17/05/2011 audio].

Moreover, the so called Dark Web is also being used to buy and sell illegal merchandise from child pornography to drugs and weapons. And by using virtual currencies such as Bitcoin, even financial transactions are virtually untraceable.

Bitcoin and Dark Wallets

There has already been suggestions that Jihadist groups may be funding operations with Bitcoin. According to a post entitled "Bitcoin and the Charity of Violent Physical Struggle" on a pro-ISIL blog, the author argues donations using the virtual currency would be "untrackable" by Western governments [Sky News]. 

In February this year, the Canadian government warned that Bitcoin could be used for money laundering and financing terrorism. There are those that say that money laundering is not so easy, but that its use as a way of buying and selling with anonymity is certainly an advantage for criminals and terrorists.

Author of the book BitCon Jeffrey Robinson has dismissed the currency, calling it a "pretend currency". He says "Bitcoin is a lousy way of laundering money" but "a very good way for criminal finance, tax evasion and for capital flight; for moving money." [YouTube]

Indeed it is because of the anonymity associated with Bitcoin use that is fast making it the currency of choice for criminals and and terrorists [Could Dark Wallet hide Bitcoin user identity? BBC Click].

Growing encryption

Hannigan has an uphill battle on his hands if he wants to win over legislators. While the risks to Britain and the West from terrorism and others is real, his proposed measures will likely bring only minimal results.

Encryption is growing and becoming more sophisticated. Indeed it is something we are reliant upon since without it online banking would be impossible. But online encryption has now entered everyday platforms with most Google services being encrypted and with social networks such as Facebook even creating the ability for users to connect directly to the social network via anonymising "dark web" service Tor [BBC].

There is an ideological issue too. Civil rights groups such as Big Brother watch argue that while discussions are certainly needed, blanket surveillance is not the answer.

Discussion in the media point to strong opposition to the GCHQ boss's proposal [Sky News].

It is understandable that GCHQ and the US counterpart, the NSA, want to carry out surveillance. The revelations earlier this year that the British spy agency had snooped on YouTube and Twitter users was hardly surprising [BBC / NBC]. 

Indeed similar assertions had been made two years ago following the Snowden leaks concerning the NSA surveillance program PRISM [Guardian].

Double edged sword

Data mining is perhaps necessary to some extent. But such procedures need to be carefully guided. Too much data mining not only treads on the toes of those concerned about privacy, it also creates a headache for security services.

Sifting through massive amounts of data necessitates the use of computerised algorithms to identify potential threats and links between suspects. Thus surveillance should be targeted [Guardian].

There are no clear winners. Increased surveillance may uncover plots, but may also send the plotters elsewhere. On the other hand, while the public may be safer from terror attacks, some may feel increasingly paranoid that their online activity is being monitored.

How long for instance before journalists or bloggers researching terrorist activity become targeted and charged for possessing illegal material. What of those who illegally download a film or album? Will they too find themselves in court as a result of increased surveillance powers.

The danger is that such powers that Hannigan proposes risks Britain becoming a totalitarian state envisaged by George Orwell in which Thought Crime is punishable.

Protection of the state and the public must ultimately be balanced as to how far we are prepared to give up our freedom in order to stay safe

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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