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Control, I must have control!

Ramblinactivist's Blog, 14th April 2018

The Henry Jackson Society and the 'Darknet' scare

The right-wing security wingnuts providing a political pretext for government repression of free expression


If you delve into my 'deep' past, you'll find that from the late 1990s until the late 2000s I worked with human rights groups, journalists and on-line activist groups. I still consult on these matters, and keep a watching brief around the issues I worked on two decades ago. And every now and then little things pop-up that are worth remarking upon.

Most 'ordinary' people have not heard of the Henry Jackson Society (HJS). They're an influential, US-style neo-conservative think tank with links to British political parties and similar groups in the USA.

On April 8th, HJS launched a new report about the darknet and extremism, entitled, Terror in the Dark. The report was authored by HJS research director Nikita Malik, who was also senior researcher at the Quilliam Foundation – another 'counter extremism' think tank with links to the right of UK politics and the security services.

I love reviewing reports like this; they're microcosms of meaning, where self-referential arguments try and paint a picture to suit the bias of their authors. This report was no exception, with its throw-away admission on page 9:

'Limitations of Research'
A large portion of the evidence connecting the Darknet to extremism and terrorism in this report is anecdotal in nature.

Anecdotal evidence? That's the stuff 'dodgy dossiers' are made of!

Rarely are such studies peer reviewed by external agencies. Instead the network of groups allied to the report's authors link to, and/or amplify, the conclusions of the report to try and give its content legitimacy. What was surprising in this case was that the report was given a largely uncritical review by The Observer:

The report's recommendations include a new internet regulatory body with the role of scrutinising tech companies' efforts to remove extremist content, along with extra resources for the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre to accrue darknet intelligence. It also advocates that social media firms should ensure extremist material is not lost when it is deleted, but is archived to help develop a better understanding of extremists' online behaviour.

No mention of the "anecdotal in nature" content of the HJS report. No mention of the greater issues surrounding the use of encrypted on-line services and the balance of risks versus benefits. And while the article documents a long list of certainly 'dodgy' things listed in HJS's report, it does so in a way that amplifies its content in an unbalanced way.

For example, the article states:

A preliminary search on the dark net on 18 January by Malik found 1,101 results for instructional material related to "security", including guides on drugs, fraud, hacking, and firearms. The Anarchist Cookbook, which contains bomb-making instructions, was available for sale for 0.0003 bitcoin – around £1.45.

That certainly illustrates one of the report's key points – that the Bitcoin virtual currency allows people to buy dodgy material anonymously. And an "Anarchist's Cookbook", that sounds very scary – but for the fact you can also by The Anarchist Cookbook on Amazon for ordinary, everyday pounds Sterling.

As with many similar reports the language of the report seeks to exploit the general public's lack of understanding, and innate fear, of all things labelled 'computer'.

For example, the darknet and darkweb sound ominous.

In reality it's just a part of the Internet that's completely shut out to anyone who does not have the precise codes to access it. It in turn is a smaller part of the deep web. Again that sounds strange, but it is merely, whether encrypted or not, the part of the Internet that is not indexed by the major search engines.

The fact is most web users access content stored on the deep web every day, such as cloud storage, without realizing it.

To assist with my research I use one of the most widely used encrypted anonymous services, TOR (otherwise known as The Onion Router). It's not only anonymity that I seek, under certain circumstances, to hide the static IP address from which I work in the server logs of the companies or services I'm studying. TOR allows you to 'tunnel' to a different location on the Internet so that you appear to be in a different country. That's a useful means to access on-line content which is otherwise blocked by national access restrictions, or again, would raise suspicion in the on-line sites being studied.

The day after the HJS report came out, it was announced that US Senator Dianne Feinstein would once again try and reintroduce legislation to mandate backdoors to on-line encrypted services. This had failed two years earlier due to the technical pitfalls – the same technical pitfalls that had led the Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull to claim last year that:

"The laws of mathematics are very commendable, but the only law that applies in Australia is the law of Australia".

What made the HJS report more significant was that just three days after its launch, the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, announced there would be a crack-down on the Internet – including £9 million of funding to tackle the darkweb – in tones which echoed the HJS report.

Just like the recent resumption of the Cold War between Russia and the West, what this new top-down pressure represents is a resumption of the crypto-wars of the 1990s – when governments tried to limit the public's access to communications encryption. Like today, it was a war of claim and counter-claim which, ultimately, failed to control the use of encryption because it is so essential to protect privacy in the on-line world.

I was part of that process too. I worked with groups in former Soviet republics, teaching journalists and human rights workers how to communicate without their repressive states finding out and imprisoning them – or in the worst case, killing them. That's also why moves by the Russian state yesterday to ban the use of a commonly used encrypted communications app., Telegram, should raise concerns.

Telegram was also singled out for control in the HJS report too.

OK; bottom line. Are "bad people" using encrypted applications to do bad things?

Undoubtedly, yes.

The question is not, however, are bad people doing bad things, but, on the balance of competing factors, is the technology itself creating this situation?

Justice is not a matter of absolutes. Balancing competing values is the key to the application of justice. As one of the founding principles of the English justice system, Blackstone's formulation, notes:

It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.

The more absolute 'justice' becomes, or rather, the enforcement of legal codes, the more likely that the innocent will be caught and society in general would suffer. And nowhere is the false idea that we can have 'absolute safety', and the ability of the state to deliver that guarantee, than on the issue of terrorism.

Though 'terror' occupies both the mind of our political class, and the media, in reality it is an incredibly minor risk in our everyday life. A few years ago the Government's Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation stated that the risk from terrorism in Britain was about the same as being killed by a bee sting.

Even with the recent terror attacks in Britain, due to the high death toll from 'The Troubles' of the 1970s and 1980s, the national death rate from terrorism will have increased little. The fact is that you are far more likely to be killed by the decisions of a politician in this country – through preventable mistakes in an over-stressed health service, or from cuts to benefits or social care, or from air pollution caused by the Government's unlawful failure to cut emissions – than by a terrorist.

Globally too, the risks of terrorism are dwarfed by the risks to the human population of the Earth from the failure of politicians to address climate change or resource depletion.

If you really wanted to reduce risk, you'd actually start with the bad decision-making of the politicians! (though, to be fair here, our own personal life-choices tend to dwarf even those risks)

The good that encryption does, not only through protecting people's use of on-line services but also its use to distribute information in repressive states, arguably out-weighs the much smaller risks of terror or criminality that exists because of it. This implicit need to balance effects and responses was highlighted in the last Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation's report in January (paragraph 2.13):

Where these awful crimes are facilitated by the use of social media, we want to close down the criminals' ability to communicate. And yet, we must recognise that policing the internet, and controlling social media comes at a very high price if it interferes with the freedom of communication which every citizen enjoys, and which is also enshrined in Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. To go further, would we risk unenforceable infringements on ECHR rights, and/or would we push the current abundance of evidence proving terrorist activity online to go offline or underground, into impenetrable places within the dark web from which clear evidence rarely emerges, and where the placement of a robust counter-narrative to terrorism is hard to effect and harder to gauge.

If the US, Britain and Russia are ALL trying to clamp-down on the public's use of encryption, while at the same time the effects of terror or crime are arguably minimal to the benefits created, you have to ask "why?". Why would these seemingly disparate governments all want to prevent people communicating privately.

Arguably, I believe, it comes down to their own paranoia, resulting from their loss of control over the public's use of digital technologies. As the world becomes less stable, governments worry over anything they cannot control, or bend to their own will. In the digital domain, such control is arbitrary when certain members of the public have the skills to elude such controls, and are willing to use those skills in the service of others.

Realistically, even if services like Telegram are banned, it takes little effort to recreate such services and hide them within the everyday transactions of the network. Yes it takes technical skill, but that did not stop hackers creating those things in the 1990s, let alone with today's computer and communications resources.

In the end, what this comes down to is the "illusion of control" politicians feel they must maintain. As with the Prime Minister of Australia claiming that statute law could beat the laws of mathematics, governments must create the illusion of control otherwise what is the purpose of executive political power? However, the gap between using executive power to weed-out criminal activity, and to eliminate any dissent to the authoritarian use of executive power, is extremely fine – and in the case of digital technologies such as encryption, barely perceptible.

I know, from my own work, that any block on digital communication can be circumvented if you put your mind to it. All that measures to control private communications will create – even if we do not (yet) have a truly authoritarian state in Britain today – is the means by which an authoritarian government might be quickly be put in place in the future. Perhaps, in the end, that is what neo-conservative groups such as the Henry Jackson Society desire, in order to protect their own, narrow view of what they wish society to be. The reality is that what networked digital technologies enable is something far less controllable, and hence something far more messy.