Monday, October 7, 2013

NSA leaks: TOR and what to do about it

The National Security Agency (NSA) has been trying to break an encryption system called The Onion Ring (TOR). This information was contained in top secret documents made public by Edward Snowden. The Guardian has  breathlessly published this information, although it is difficult to see why this should be big news.

TOR is a cheap way for Internet users to communicate with each other anonymously. The US Government has developed TOR as a means for dissidents in countries with repressive regimes to communicate with each other and the outside world, or for spies to send reports back to their agencies without leaving a computer trail. TOR works like a chain letter. It takes an email you write and removes your return address from it. TOR uses its own servers and removes the return addresses of all of them before it delivers your message.

NSC has been attacking TOR, and the tin-hat brigade seems to have its hair on fire over this. The constitutional absolutists consider NSC's action an attack on free speech. The paranoid right and the paranoid left are united on this issue. TOR is a good thing. NSC should not mess in where it doesn't belong.

The problem with that logic, if it is logic, is that NSC's job is to go after whatever tools or networks the spies and terrorists and criminals may be using. NSC may be overreaching in some areas, but this is not one of them. The libertarians consider this a first amendment issue, but the first amendment is yet another one of those ideas that was fine before people with bombs could kill thousands of innocent civilians, or child pornographers could encourage their minions with secret websites.

I don't approve of NSA collecting data on everyone in their search for terrorists. They can find smarter ways to reach their goals. But once they discover that a terrorist cell may be using an encryption tool, be it TOR or something more intricate and advanced, I want law enforcement to be able to break up that terrorist cell before it can work its evil in the world.

In 2011, the hacker group Anonymous attacked and brought down a TOR site that distributed child pornography. I applaud the motives of Anonymous, but their actions frequently display the worst traits of vigilantism. They target suspects and attack them without giving them a fair hearing. I don't want to read that Anonymous took down a child porn site. I would like some quasi-government entity, perhaps an NGO, to do that.

We need to have a reasonable discussion about what we can do, acting together, to protect ourselves from those who would abuse modern technology. Having automatic reactions against NSC, or anyone else, is not helping us reach that goal.

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