Blown To Bits

Tracking Terrorists, The Right and Wrong Ways

Sunday, August 31st, 2008 by Harry Lewis

Terrorists use the Internet just like the rest of us. Probably moreso. They email each other. They post stuff on web sites. They have discussions about what they are planning. All the big things we know about the Internet — that it can spread information quickly and cheaply, that it is an effective tool for cooperative action by widely dispersed participants — are value-neutral. The Internet’s capabilities can be exploited for either good or evil.

The U.S. government understands this, and watches what happens on the Internet as part of its war on terror. Two recent news items show different ways this can be done.

The online edition of the German magazine Spiegel has a fascinating profile of SITE and IntelCenter, two companies run by young Americans. Essentially all they do is to sit in front of computer screens at their offices and watch what the terrorists are saying and doing. Sometimes they have to create fraudulent identities and obtain passwords to do so. They often need translators. But in essence, these companies are just bit processors. Though they don’t disclose all their tricks in the article, it seems that their staff just shows up at their offices in the morning (at undisclosed locations), pull bits in and push a few out, all day long. They use no shoe leather or even cell phones. They pass along what they have learned to parties who pay them for the information.

They are an important source of information to the CIA, FBI, and other American security and defense agencies. Their discoveries are used by news agencies as well. The Federal government has developed some similar capabilities internally, but got into the business later and is still catching up.

A success story for private enterprise and the small-business entrepreneurship, and for sensible cooperation between the federal government and the private sector.

Another part of the federal government’s anti-terror intelligence operations is the use of so-called National Security Letters (NSLs). These orders require (among other things) Internet Service Providers to turn over electronic communications, usually without disclosing that they have done so to the communicating parties or to anyone else. NSLs are provided for in the PATRIOT Act, and have long been resented by civil libertarians. Hundreds of thousands of NSLs have been issued, almost all accompanied by gag orders.

A small ISP (which one is itself being kept secret) took the government to court on First Amendment grounds. The ISP claimed that the requirement that it keep quiet even about the fact that it had received a NSL was an infringement of its constitutional right to free speech, as the gag order made it impossible to protest the government’s action. A lower federal court agreed with its claim that this provision of the PATRIOT Act was unconstitutional. The matter is now before a federal appeals court, as Reuters reports. It appears that the court is skeptical of the government’s arguments, to judge from this passage from the Reuters story:

The government argues [gag orders] are in place for national security concerns, such as keeping terrorists from learning what they are investigating.

“You can’t tell me that any terrorist is going to make anything out of the fact you issued NSLs to AT&T and Verizon,” said Circuit Judge Sonia Sotomayor, using a hypothetical example.

The technology is neither good nor bad. It’s all about what you do with it, and we should all be thinking about the choices the government makes.

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