There’s nothing like a terrorist attack to make government officials seemingly lose their senses and propose bad ideas. The recent horrific ISIS related terrorist attacks in Beirut, Paris, San Bernardino and elsewhere have created an understandable sense of fear among people who worry that they too could be gunned down by a fanatic Islamic fundamentalist while attending an office party or eating out at a restaurant. At the same time, it’s useful to not completely overreact to terrorist attacks by proposing ideas that would do long-term harm to our free societies. Let’s go over some of the worst technology-related proposals we’ve seen below.
Bad idea No. 1: Banning Tor. Recently leaked documents have revealed that the French government is considering proposing an outright ban on using Tor in the country. Tor, which is an acronym for The Onion Router, keeps your online activity anonymous by routing your traffic through several different servers before sending it through to your computer and it has become a staple tool for criminals who want to discretely conduct illegal activities.
But banning Tor is something that would be incredibly difficult to do and would be very difficult to actually enforce. Ars Technica notes that China is the only country in the world that has successfully blocked Tor via its Great Firewall and that’s probably not a good model to look at when it comes to striking the right balance between maintaining national security and preserving liberty.
We’ve also seen that terrorists don’t need Tor to plan attacks — the Paris attackers, for example, used plain old SMS to plan and carry out their slaughter. Added to this, banning Tor in one country wouldn’t prevent terrorists from using it in other countries. And even if Tor does go down, the nature of the web makes it likely that a similar protocol would soon pop up to replace it.
Finally, services like Tor have some legitimate uses that aren’t related to criminal activities. Human rights activists and whistle blowers use Tor to pass along information without being identified and persecuted. Taking away Tor wouldn’t just potentially disrupt the bad guys but the good guys as well.
Bad idea No. 2: Creating a “backdoor” for encryption. Like Tor, the use of encryption in online communications is just a tool that can be used for both good and bad. Given that end-to-end encryption makes it more difficult for governments to monitor communications, it’s understandable that intelligence agencies would want access to decryption keys to monitor prospective terrorists.
However, the problem is that encryption is an incredibly useful technology that is used for just about every secure transaction we make on the web. If hackers were able to gain access to the government’s own special decryption keys, it would compromise online security for everyone.
As three former national security officials wrote in an editorial in The Washington Post over the summer, “if third-party key holders have less than perfect security, they may be hacked and the duplicate key exposed.” They go on to note that “this is no theoretical possibility, as evidenced by major cyberintrusions into supposedly secure government databases and the successful compromise of security tokens held by a major information security firm.”
Instead, these officials argued that intelligence agencies still have the proper tools they need to track potential terror plots without the need to compromise a basic building block of Internet security. While the notion of producing a “backdoor” for encryption isn’t as obviously wrongheaded as outright banning Tor, it’s nonetheless not a good idea.
Bad idea No. 3: Using Internet filters to track and censor “religious hate speech” on the Internet. This is thankfully not an idea that’s going to happen anytime soon but it does demonstrate how the fear induced by terrorist attacks can cause some extremely unsound thinking on public policy.
This specific proposal was pushed by Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson in a Washington Post editorial last month and it really does set a terrible precedent that Carson would understand if he took a mere five minutes to consider its implications. Here is his full proposal as outlined in the editorial:
We have in place both the technical and legal capabilities to prohibit the widespread dissemination of hate-based propaganda disguised as religious teaching. We can monitor social media by expanding the search algorithms already in place to safeguard against inappropriate behavior, including religious hate speech. Once flagged, we can notify platform providers and encourage them to censor communications (and block users) that violate the terms of constructive discourse. The hacker group Anonymous has already provided a model for accomplishing this. We should use every tool at our disposal to root out and destroy the global online recruitment efforts of these extremist organizations.
The trick with all of these kinds of proposals, of course, is how to define “hate speech.” Direct threats and incitements to violence obviously qualify, but after that it gets tricky. The man who killed three people at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado last month seems to have been inspired by anti-Planned Parenthood videos created by Christian anti-abortion groups that accuse the group of profiting from selling the body parts of dead babies. Would Carson support banning such videos as “hate speech” if it was found they inspired someone to commit an act of terrorism?
None of this is to say that we shouldn’t try to track and prevent terror attacks. That said, there’s a danger that in our desire to prevent such attacks, we overreact and enact unnecessary policies that won’t make us appreciably safer but will make us appreciably less free.