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Tor, An Ethical Dilema

tor

Over the summer I have been following reporting surrounding the TOR project. I have learnt some interesting things. I must admit that I tried to download the browser but I couldn’t work out how to get it up and running, but that is probably more due to my own incompetence than anything else.

Tor has some serious issues as far as ethics goes, because it is designed to help people to remain anonymous as they use the net. This may to some seem perfectly justified given that Google and their friends are monitoring our every move and storing it all for resale later, but it is also great for criminal activity.

Recently reports emerged from Russia that the head of the Federal Security Service (FSB) has personally ordered preparations for laws that would block the Tor anonymity network from the entire Russian sector of the Internet. Obviously his aim is not to stop people from anonymously using the Internet, but to fight crime. The agency initiated the move as internet anonymizers were used by weapon traffickers, drug dealers and credit card fraudsters, giving the FSB an obvious interest in limiting the use of such software.

Other reports claim that not all of Russian law enforcement are in agreement, because criminals tend to overestimate the protection provided by the Undernet, act recklessly and allow themselves to get caught. Here the so-called Undernet is the key though, as anonymity is difficult to police.

Other reports state that “Security experts have accused US law enforcement of taking advantage of a flaw in the Firefox Internet browser then exploiting it to identify and potentially monitor subscribers to Tor”. It appears that the malware comes from the USA, but nobody is admitting to creating it, and as the Russians accuse the FBI and vice versa, any truth will be difficult to find.

One truth is however that Tor allows for the proliferation of various forms of criminality and exploitation that I would rather not go into here. The problem remains though, do we have the right to online anonymity? If not who has the right to stop us?

To return to following the news, I read that workers at the NSA and GCHQ in the UK have been accused of leaking information that they have regarding flaws in the workings of Tor. These two organizations are extremely interested in the browser for the obvious reasons above, but there is more that you might expect here. According to the BBC “The BBC understands, however, that GCHQ does attempt to monitor a range of anonymisation services in order to identify and track down suspects involved in…….crimes”.

But! Tor was originally designed by the US Naval Research Laboratory, and continues to receive funding from the US State Department. It is used by the military, activists, businesses and others to keep communications confidential and aid free speech.

And it turns out that the investigating agency rely on Tor for their own work, to keep themselves safe and anonymous, so they seem to be in a bit of a contradictory position to say the least.

So there appear to be many unanswered questions about the level of anonymity achieved, who has access, who works to destroy and who works to aid the project, and once more I find myself looking into a murky world.

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Media News

Boston Bombs and the Billboard Problem

As I am sure many of you will already know, last week was a difficult one to say the least for my fellow citizens of Boston and Cambridge.

The events have caused a debate here though about the use of advertising technology. In the US many places host digital billboards. They are enormous, bright, attract attention and the content can be changed at will, using a computer and not a pole with wallpaper paste on it. Many change every 10 or 20 seconds, allowing great generation of revenue for both the publicity companies and the cities and states that license their use.

Digital Billboards In Use
Digital Billboards In Use

I first saw something like these while watching the Premier League, boards that changed by the side of the pitch through a disk system, but the modern equivalent are just like watching giant TV’s, in HD quality no less.

So why the debate? Well it turns out that the FBI have contracts with the largest billboard operators, and they can take over any number of the appliances and show what they want. In the case of Boston the contract is with Clear Channel Communications, and this allowed the FBI to show the photos of the two presumed bombers. Direct to the public marketing, for those of us still living without TV and smartphone (yes I am).

But many groups argue that the billboards themselves are dangerous and present a distraction to drivers, and many are placed in residential areas causing numerous complaints. Light pollution as much as skyline destruction are both problems when they are placed in residential or historic areas. The City of Los Angeles has in fact recently taken many of them offline on these grounds as this article explains, and pressure groups exist that campaign for their removal.

A Distraction?
A Distraction or an eyesore?

In all fairness they are not all trying to ban them, but to place them only in commercial districts where they do not cause distraction, but as you might imagine this does not go down too well. Distraction (or attention anyway) is after all one of their main goals.

But there is a lot of money involved. The city of Chicago hopes to raise $155 million by placing billboards throughout the city. The City recently approved a deal as this article explains.

The State of New Jersey has just struck down a ban on their use, again hoping to raise much needed funds.

The FBI argue that they are useful tools in crime prevention, stating that they have already apprehended 51 fugitives after posting their faces on billboards, and insist on their position as a public good. The debate rages and I am sure will continue on for some time.

The Scenic America website offers links to several safety studies regarding digital billboards for the interested reader.

On a lighter note and thinking about my post last week I wonder if they are on Shodan and easily hacked? That might be interesting.