Written by Struan Duncan-Wilson
Here’s the neat thing about the internet: it’s essentially free.
Yes, it costs you to access it through an ISP, but what you pay for connects you to the internet. After that, the end user doesn’t pay. The companies that own the websites you visit pay the hosting services, whose computers deal with hundreds of thousands of requests a minute. That they need to be paid is understandable.
Most free things are free because they are subsidised by a person or body. State schools, for example. The internet is different; it’s crowdsourced. More than that, it’s crowd-maintained. Which means that no one person or organisation can see what’s happening on the internet.
Sadly, David Cameron doesn’t grasp the realities of how hard it would be to implement a system like the one he’s proposing in the wakes of the Paris attacks. The technical difficulties alone are numerous; and the simple fact, as evidenced by myself and many others in high school libraries and computing departments, is that for any way to block internet access, there’s a way around it. Effectiveness is a matter of making it so secure that a computer or person couldn’t find that way in a reasonable timeframe.
In David Cameron’s ideal dreamworld, it would be simple and cheap to implement a system like the one he wants. If a computer, phone or tablet is in the UK, get a court order to read the ISPs records and then contact the websites in question.
In order to get around my high school firewall, I wrote a script that ‘pinged’ the website I wanted to access – essentially rang the doorbell. The webpage would respond with a whole load of information, including it’s IP address, a series of numbers. The weakness in the firewall was the fact that fundamentally, it was done on the cheap, because it was commissioned by a local council. That meant that they just blacklisted website URLs, and not IP addresses. Ergo, I could check Facebook in school, which you can imagine was of massive importance. So imagine when free speech is at stake, and the best hackers in the country, the world, are tackling the challenge.
The primary symptom of how hard it is for a public institution to effectively block Internet access is that the people who wrote the firewall program weren’t concerned about getting many ‘false negatives’ i.e., about blocking websites that they didn’t need to be blocked. That means they most likely did it as cheaply as possible; trying to use algorithms to accurately determine whether a website is inappropriate is near-impossible. And it was still full of glaring loopholes.
Despite the fact that the government is probably willing to throw more money at this than my local council was, the problem remains the same; there are more brilliant coders who believe in free speech than there are that don’t. And those coders are the reason that Tor, arguably the most powerful free-speech tool today exists, and the reason that despite The Silk Road being cracked open (news which, by the way, filled me with worry – not because I’m a big consumer of drugs or hired guns, but because of the implications for people living under censorship) people living under censorship can still talk to us; the reason that Anonymous is the name on so many peoples lips, the reason that the stereotype of the basement-dwelling, pizza-dependant geek is unfair – geeks are damn smart, and hackers love a challenge.
Quite frankly, here’s what’s wrong with Cameron’s proposal – it comes from the mind of a man with little or no understanding of the technicalities involved. He could potentially implement a system that he might consider adequate; thousands of messages would leak out under it every day. Even if he managed to operate a system like the one he’s talking about; ciphers and disposable mobile phones would render it pointless, not to mention the fact that any plan conceived outside the UK would slip under the radar very neatly. It’s a pipe-dream, and anyone who thinks otherwise is either unlearned in the technology required or knows something I don’t.
Oh, and by the way, the best way to tackle terrorist attacks? Find the terrorists. Trawling through the messages of a teenage kid who use the words ‘bomb’, ‘al Qaeda’ and ‘terrorist’ isn’t going to uncover the plot of the century – you’re just going to learn something about how to defeat that level of the computer game he’s playing.