Administration Says Child Porn Provides A 'Model' For Hunting Terrorists Online

from the it-could-not-be-more-wrong dept

The administration is trying to draft tech companies into the War on Terror. Encryption -- despite being given an unofficial "hands-off" by President Obama -- is still being debated, with FBI Director James Comey and a few law enforcement officials leading the charge up the hill they apparently want to die on.

One of the aspects discussed was how to deter online communications involving terrorists. Trying to deputize tech companies is a non-starter, considering the potential for collateral damage. But that's not stopping the administration from trying to do exactly that, and it's willing to deploy the most terrible participant in its parade of horrors.

“I do have a lot of confidence that those companies that are run by patriotic Americans are not interested in seeing their tools or their technology used by terrorists to harm innocent Americans,” [White House press secretary Josh] Earnest told reporters in Washington before the meeting occurred. “That’s certainly not what they were designed for.”

[...]

“There is a precedent for us to confront this kind of problem,” Earnest said. “We know that there are some people who try to make money based on the selling and trafficking of child pornography and they are using websites to do that. And we have been able to work effectively with the tech community to counter those efforts.”
Earnest makes two implications here, both of them disingenuous. The first is that any reluctance expressed by tech companies should be viewed as evidence these companies just don't love America enough. The second is that an unwillingness to intervene on the US government's behalf is hypocritical, considering the voluntary efforts these companies undertake to identify and remove child pornography.

The problem is that alleged terroristic content and child pornography aren't comparable -- at least not to the extent that the administration portrays it. For one, child pornography -- for the most part -- is difficult to mistake for protected speech. One of the few exceptions to the First Amendment deals specifically with this content. In addition, most identified files have unique hashes which can readily be identified when they pop up elsewhere on the web.

The other problem is that even if files associated with terrorism or potential acts of terrorism are uniquely identifiable via hashes, that doesn't immediately elevate possession of these files to a criminal act. Jonathan Zittrain at Just Security points out that this makes all the difference in the world.
To be sure, child pornography filtering — and reporting — may be a place to draw a clear line. Not only is child pornography near-universally reviled and banned, but the matching algorithm for previously-identified images boasts no false positives, and, perhaps most important, possession of the file is not only clear evidence of the crime, but quite typically the crime itself. A terrorist to-do list is primarily only evidence, not itself a crime.
The hypothetical situation proposed in Zittrain's post -- that Google, et al begin to treat terrorist content like child pornography -- is a potential ground zero for all sorts of collateral damage. Google already scans email for child porn (as well as for potential advertising keywords), but adding terrorism to this short list would put dissidents, journalists, researchers and activists in the government's crosshairs. Possession of terrorist-related materials isn't a criminal act, but that wouldn't prevent unwarranted (in the original sense, not the Fourth Amendment sense [although that wouldn't be far behind…]) surveillance of citizens who aren't terrorists or terrorist sympathizers.

And once Google has expanded its dragnet to include terrorist material, it wouldn't take long for other aggrieved parties to jump on the proxy surveillance bandwagon. After all, a criminal offense is a criminal offense -- whether it's the circulation of terrorist-related content or anything else certain entities feel needs more policing on the Wild West Web.
If a search for contraband documents expands beyond the comparatively well-bounded area of child pornography, there could be little stopping it from progressing incrementally to an Orwellian level of invasiveness. For example, to prevent claimed copyright infringement, we could see services compelled to scan private communications for musical tracks or videos, or links to that content. Facebook has at times done just that for its private messaging service. Whatever one’s views on copyright, the upside of applying the search technique there is surely lower than that of catching murderers, though the logic underlying the search may ultimately prove powerful enough to make it common.
Add to that the fact that the government -- once it has persuaded Google, etc. to look for certain content -- will continue to add to the list of things tech companies should look for. Child porn is Patient Zero. Terrorism seems to be the next step. After that, mission creep is inevitable.

Zittrain does provide reasons why Google should scan for terrorist material, and they sound exactly like the reasons the government would state when pressuring tech companies to engage in further pro bono web policing: the additional searches would be minimally intrusive and could conceivably save lives. But the problem remains unaddressed by the "positives" of these tactics. Child porn possession is a crime. Possession of a circulated plan for a terrorist attack is not. It may be suspicious but it is not, in and of itself, a criminal act.

Finally, even with a tailored search for files with unique hash values, the search itself is still a general search. It would be an automated dragnet encompassing not only users of whatever service deployed it, but also those sending email/messages/etc. to users of that service. That's a "general search" -- the kind the Fourth Amendment is supposed to deter -- no matter how the government spins it. And it will spin it, if it gets a chance. That's why the pressure is being applied towards voluntary actions rather than legislated "fixes." If the government can talk Google and its competitors into performing its general searches for it, it can avoid dealing with the constitutional issues that would certainly arise if it chose to perform this on its own.

Filed Under: child porn, fbi, filtering, james comey, monitoring, terrorism, white house


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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Jan 2016 @ 1:12pm

    Top 3 excuses to control and censor the internet.

    1) Terrorism
    2) Child porn
    3) File-sharing

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 22 Jan 2016 @ 5:45pm

      Re:

      That. And...

      I keep wondering how long it will take for it to occur to defense lawyers/judges that hackers, business/personal rivals, and law enforcement itself all have the technical means available to them to place child pornography (or whatever other incriminating evidence they like) onto just about anyone's computer/server and then erase any trace of them ever having been there. And unless one has the financial/technical resources to prove their innocence, they're basically eff'd for life.

      It's so common it almost sounds cliché when we hear about law enforcement planting drugs on some hapless citizen to secure a conviction. It's beyond me why the digital equivalent goes relatively unconsidered.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Jan 2016 @ 1:22pm

    Wait... I missed something here. When was the last time Child Porn blew up in a place like Boston?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      tqk (profile), 22 Jan 2016 @ 6:11pm

      Re:

      When was the last time Child Porn blew up in a place like Boston?

      That would be that daycare center in California where perfectly decent child care workers were terrorized by LEOs and child protection over pretty much non-existent evidence. Last I heard, the prosecutors and cops still believed, "They was robbed!" We wound up with a bunch of draconian laws on the books despite there being no substance to the accusations.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 22 Jan 2016 @ 1:23pm

    “That’s certainly not what they were designed for.”
    Like the Bill of Rights, Constitution, & rule of law that the political machine have chewed up and shat out.

    Perhaps using CP as the gold standard is a bad idea... didn't they just bust a trading ring by keeping the server online and facilitating the trade & production of the material?
    Is the suggestion that perhaps to get the really bad terrorists we should allow a few people to be injured or die in a plot so you can get information and get more terrorists?

    Oh and perhaps we distrust working with you because when faced with people unwilling to violate the rule of law you still snuck in taps and spying (even on those who DID cooperate)... and you seem to enjoy spying harder on people who dare speak out against the regime and the security theater that is being run to get people to accept the unacceptable trampling of our alleged freedoms in the name of being safe from manufactured plots started by your own agencies... featuring wild hollywood style plots allegedly thought up be people without the intelligence or means to carry them off being supplied with the best materials our tax dollars can provide the plotters you roped in and radicalized.

    This isn't about terrorism, this is about gathering more intel that WILL be used to accomplish all sorts of things that do nothing to keep citizens safer but protect the dystopian future you want us all to live in.

    For all of your total awareness, how does one miss your own agents stealing & abusing the system? Perhaps thinking the cogs of the system are immune from committing bad acts is stupid.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 22 Jan 2016 @ 1:49pm

      Re:

      "Is the suggestion that perhaps to get the really bad terrorists we should allow a few people to be injured or die in a plot so you can get information and get more terrorists?"

      You did read about Boston right? All those "terrorists" were killed on sight while the victims were used as bait for catching more terrorists.

      Hint, in the last (two) decade(s) during each terror attack in the western world there has been a training exercise at the exact moment with the exact same parameters. Poison gas in an underground? check! Planes crashing in a major building? check! And that is stuff you can google which means I'm only wearing my tinfoil hat for style reasons at that time and of course... aliens... gotta watch out for those.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Anonymous Coward, 22 Jan 2016 @ 1:34pm

    Cross Contamination

    It appears that members of the administration visited more than one department prior to making these assertions. That stuff they 'accidentally' inhaled over at the DEA testing lab had a serious impact in their judgment and they should have slept a week or so before commenting.

    Either that or this is another vector in their approach to dismantling the Constitution in...well, their own interest.

    Power rocks and absolute power rocks absolutely.

    Therefore it absolutely tracks to attribute this motivation to those that propose government activities, or rules, or legislation, or partners that have the potential to controvert the Constitution.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Jan 2016 @ 1:39pm

    One moment please

    Some years ago the biggest host of child pron was the US because of the broad interpretation of free speech. The study was made by one of the biggest cp fighting NPOs in the EU.

    But even given that the US hosts most of the worlds cp I don't get why this has anything to do with terrorism other than "think of the children" FUD. I guess selling oil is more profitable than that kind of shit ("shit" protected by the 1rst). And the price of oil is showing that them terris do sell a whole lot of oil for quite some time now. So if you mention CP as a way for terris to make money then imho you should be sent to a shrink for evaluation because either thinking that the world wide CP marked is even close to the oil market is crazy or you consume way too much (aka any) CP to make you think that way.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    any moose cow word, 22 Jan 2016 @ 1:41pm

    Didn't one of those media execs say that infringement is worse that murder?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Jan 2016 @ 1:49pm

    Remember when many of us were telling companies not to help law enforcement to catch pedophiles the way they do, because they will later come back and ask for more stuff like that?

    Now it's happening.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Jan 2016 @ 1:51pm

    "Add to that the fact that the government -- once it has persuaded Google, etc. to look for certain content -- will continue to add to the list of things tech companies should look for."

    And i will give odds on that the list of certain content to look for will be copyrighted files once Hollywood has finished with telling the government that they will be getting no more election campaign funds until they add copyrighted files to the list and the government will add to the list of content to look for.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Jan 2016 @ 2:02pm

    The mere possession of child porn, regardless of the quantity or circumstances, is a de facto felony in many jurisdictions. Some of the most trollish hackers have taken advantage of this by hacking into the computer of someone they want to take down hard, planting some child porn, then giving an anonymous tip to the authorities, knowing that a child porn conviction is such a big feather in their cap that they'll go to any lengths to get a conviction, no matter whether the targeted individual deserves it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    beltorak (profile), 22 Jan 2016 @ 2:07pm

    hello cory doctorow

    Government: Can you create a network that allows people to transmit any information of any type to anyone else anywhere in the world, except for stuff that we don't like? kthxbai.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Jan 2016 @ 2:14pm

    The only thing we need to fear is fear itself. Seems we have quite a bunch of cowards in Washington these days. Seems we need to start avoiding American Made if we don't want the world to have access to our private property. Always looking for a backdoor, bunch of Sodomites.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Jan 2016 @ 2:18pm

    Ironic, since there's been news that the FBI ran a child pornography website for two weeks.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Jan 2016 @ 2:50pm

    TOO much straw?

    What a lame analogy. Then to call the tech companies unpatriotic for not doing the governments JOB. Next is the constitutional problem of bulk spying and collecting straw from the whole world. Now they need to shift blame from their own incompetence to tech companies and call them traitors. Their balls are getting to big for their britches, it's time to call the doctor and remove those oversize balls. Lets cure that testosterone poisoning and regain a more reasonable perspective. At least stop just throwing shit at the wall to see what sticks. The really irritating part is thinking we are stupid enough to swallow their bullshit tactics.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Jan 2016 @ 3:07pm

    Why do I click your shitty article headlines? Misleading.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Jan 2016 @ 5:40pm

    Has 'patriotic' ever been used to mean anything other than blind obedience to the ruling power?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 23 Jan 2016 @ 8:16am

      Re:

      "Has 'patriotic' ever been used to mean anything other than blind obedience to the ruling power?"

      Appeal to Authority fallacy is alive and well within the GOP, their current candidates and those who support them. No independent thought is allowed and you had better tow the line.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Jan 2016 @ 6:13pm

    I think this has less to do with content ID of CP images and more like Facebook's model of flagging types of actions (i.e. non-friends messaging underage children). Using this method you can create a profile of potential child predators or jihadis. Obviously you're gonna get false positives, but Facebook has been doing this kind of analysis for at least 4 years no. It's no surprise that it would be expanded to other groups.

    http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-internet-predators-idUSBRE86B05G20120712

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Jan 2016 @ 10:20pm

    Possession of terrorist material should not be treated like child porn, but writing terrorist material should be because it shows that the person sympathizes with terrorists. In that case, fire away.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 23 Jan 2016 @ 8:17am

      Re:

      And just what, exactly, constitutes "writing terrorist material" ?

      Let me guess ... anything you do not like - amirite?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        (Second) Anonymous Coward, 23 Jan 2016 @ 8:49pm

        Re: Re:

        You might to able to figure that out if you actually tried.

        I'd say it means advocating illegal violence.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      John Fenderson (profile), 23 Jan 2016 @ 11:38am

      Re:

      So you're satung that merely expressing a position sympathetic to whoever we're calling "terrorists" these days shouldn't be allowed?

      I disagree in the strongest possible terms.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Second Anonymous Coward, 23 Jan 2016 @ 8:53pm

        Re: Re:

        I'd say advocating killing civilians is very similar to passing around child porn. Both mean you are sympathizing with evil.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Second Anonymous Coward, 23 Jan 2016 @ 9:04pm

        Re: Re:

        And would you say passing around this thing called "child porn" should be legal because it's just whatever we're calling "child porn" these days? After all, you could quibble that maybe pictures of 16 year old girls ought to be legal where the age of consent is 16, or something. Does that mean child porn is totally ill-defined and they're coming after you for taking a picture of your baby without a top on? No of course not.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          John Fenderson (profile), 24 Jan 2016 @ 7:52am

          Re: Re: Re:

          You've missed my point.

          I don't think anyone should be prosecuted for saying "Child porn is awesome, everyone should make some!", but it's reasonable to prosecute people who actually make it.

          I don't think anyone should be prosecuted for daying "Terrorism is awesome, everyone should go do some!", but it's reasonable to prosecute people who actually do it.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Second Anonymous Coward, 24 Jan 2016 @ 7:23pm

            Re: Re: Re: Re:

            Do you agree that people who don't create child porn, but do possess or pass it along, should be prosecuted?

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            • identicon
              Anonymous Coward, 25 Jan 2016 @ 10:16am

              Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

              The difference is that possession of CP is in itself illegal. Possession of ideas is not. Terrorist propaganda are ideas, and therefore not illegal.
              A better comparison is "if someone who did not create the bomb, was in possession of a bomb, or passed it along, should they be prosecuted?".
              Let's compare apples to apples here.

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Ron Spain, 22 Jan 2016 @ 10:50pm

    Bombs vs Illuminated Dots

    So the author here (Tim?) thinks pictures are much more dangerous than a terrorist's plans to blow up people, and I suppose he thinks that's a sane and rational perspective (or she if Tim happens to be a female or a trans). Fascinating. Those little dots on your screen called pixels clearly can be very dangerous if they light up in certain ways, apparently harming children all the way on the other side of the world even more than all the bombs the U.S. has dropped indiscriminately using drones since we never talk about the harm to those children. People only care about whatever's convenient for them to care about, and that's another reason why people in general suck.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Mark Wing, 22 Jan 2016 @ 11:17pm

    Child porn provides a model for using FUD to trample our rights.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    I'm American, 23 Jan 2016 @ 8:43am

    What The Fuck? Spelled Out For You

    Why has OUR government allowed these tech companies to do business in America and allowed them to side-step their tax liability to America for so long? It seems like that could fund a lot of anti-terrorist activity if OUR government was as concerned as they claim and not so ready to destroy OUR civil liberties as they appear to be so transfixed to do.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Second Anonymous Coward, 25 Jan 2016 @ 2:43pm

    Yes, viewing child porn is illegal. We all agree it should be illegal. But tell me, what reason would you give for why it should be?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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