The Observer reports: When a chubby Birmingham teenager went on trial in 2012 for hacking Tony Blair’s personal address book, and taking down an anti-terror hotline, defence lawyers described him as “shy and unassuming” and dismissed the online exploits as a childish prank.
“They weren’t terrorists in any way, shape or form,” his barrister argued in court. Less than two years later, Junaid Hussain was in Syria, apparently on his way to join Isis, one of its most dangerous new recruits.
The group transfixed the world with its ultraviolent ideology, as it swept through Syria and Iraq in a frenzy of bloodshed and destruction. But its leaders’ enthusiasm for medieval barbarity is matched by an equally fervent embrace of modern technology. They know that a hacker like Hussain, behind his laptop, is as intimidating to some of their distant enemies as the gunmen terrorising people on the ground.
“Isis has been recruiting hackers for some time now. Some are virtual collaborators from a distance, but others have been recruited to emigrate to Syria,” said JM Berger, co-author of Isis: The State of Terror. “Activity targeting the west is just part of their portfolio. They’re also responsible for maintaining internet access in Isis territories, for instance, and for instructing members on security.” [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: Late last month, China began flooding American websites with a barrage of Internet traffic in an apparent effort to take out services that allow China’s Internet users to view websites otherwise blocked in the country.
Initial security reports suggested that China had crippled the services by exploiting its own Internet filter — known as the Great Firewall — to redirect overwhelming amounts of traffic to its targets. Now, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Toronto say China did not use the Great Firewall after all, but rather a powerful new weapon that they are calling the Great Cannon.
The Great Cannon, the researchers said in a report published Friday, allows China to intercept foreign web traffic as it flows to Chinese websites, inject malicious code and repurpose the traffic as Beijing sees fit.
The system was used, they said, to intercept web and advertising traffic intended for Baidu — China’s biggest search engine company — and fire it at GitHub, a popular site for programmers, and GreatFire.org, a nonprofit that runs mirror images of sites that are blocked inside China. The attacks against the services continued on Thursday, the researchers said, even though both sites appeared to be operating normally.
But the researchers suggested that the system could have more powerful capabilities. With a few tweaks, the Great Cannon could be used to spy on anyone who happens to fetch content hosted on a Chinese computer, even by visiting a non-Chinese website that contains Chinese advertising content.
“The operational deployment of the Great Cannon represents a significant escalation in state-level information control,” the researchers said in their report. It is, they said, “the normalization of widespread and public use of an attack tool to enforce censorship.” [Continue reading…]
Tom Jacobs writes: Surely you have noticed: A lot of people who have no idea what they are talking about are oddly certain of their superior knowledge. While this disconnect has been a problem throughout human history, new research suggests a ubiquitous feature of our high-tech world — the Internet — has made matters much worse.
In a series of studies, a Yale University research team led by psychologist Matthew Fisher shows that people who search for information on the Web emerge from the process with an inflated sense of how much they know — even regarding topics that are unrelated to the ones they Googled.
This illusion of knowledge appears to be “driven by the act of searching itself,” they write in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Apparently conflating seeking information online with racking one’s brain, people consistently mistake “outsourced knowledge for internal knowledge.” [Continue reading…]
Steve Wasserman writes: The vast canvas afforded by the Internet has done little to encourage thoughtful and serious criticism. Mostly it has provided a vast Democracy Wall on which any crackpot can post his or her manifesto. Bloggers bloviate and insults abound. Discourse coarsens. Information is abundant, wisdom scarce. It is a striking irony, as Leon Wieseltier has noted, that with the arrival of the Internet, “a medium of communication with no limitations of physical space, everything on it has to be in six hundred words.” The Internet, he said, is the first means of communication invented by humankind that privileges one’s first thoughts as one’s best thoughts. And he rightly observed that if “value is a function of scarcity,” then “what is most scarce in our culture is long, thoughtful, patient, deliberate analysis of questions that do not have obvious or easy answers.” Time is required to think through difficult questions. Patience is a condition of genuine intellection. The thinking mind, the creating mind, said Wieseltier, should not be rushed. “And where the mind is rushed and made frenetic, neither thought nor creativity will ensue. What you will most likely get is conformity and banality. Writing is not typed talking.”
The fundamental idea at stake in the criticism of culture generally is the self-image of society: how it reasons with itself, describes itself, imagines itself. Nothing in the excitements made possible by the digital revolution banishes the need for the rigor such self-reckoning requires. It is, as Wieseltier says, the obligation of cultural criticism to bear down on what matters. [Continue reading…]
Henry Farrell writes: The Hidden Wiki holds the keys to a secret internet. To reach it, you need a special browser that can access ‘Tor Hidden Services’ – websites that have chosen to obscure their physical location. But even this browser isn’t enough. Like the Isla de Muerta in the film Pirates of the Caribbean, the landmarks of this hidden internet can be discovered only by those who already know where they are.
Sites such as the Hidden Wiki provide unreliable treasure maps. They publish lists of the special addresses for sites where you can use Bitcoin to buy drugs or stolen credit card numbers, play strange games, or simply talk, perhaps on subjects too delicate for the open web. The lists are often untrustworthy. Sometimes the addresses are out-of-date. Sometimes they are actively deceptive. One link might lead to a thriving marketplace for buying and selling stolen data; another, to a wrecker’s display of false lights, a cloned site designed to relieve you of your coin and give you nothing in return.
This hidden internet is a product of debates among technology-obsessed libertarians in the 1990s. These radicals hoped to combine cryptography and the internet into a universal solvent that would corrupt the bonds of government tyranny. New currencies, based on recent cryptographic advances, would undermine traditional fiat money, seizing the cash nexus from the grasp of the state. ‘Mix networks’, where everyone’s identity was hidden by multiple layers of encryption, would allow people to talk and engage in economic exchange without the government being able to see.
Plans for cryptographic currencies led to the invention of Bitcoin, while mix networks culminated in Tor. The two technologies manifest different aspects of a common dream – the utopian aspiration to a world where one could talk and do business without worrying about state intervention – and indeed they grew up together. For a long time, the easiest way to spend Bitcoin was at Tor’s archipelago of obfuscated websites.
Like the pirate republics of the 18th century, this virtual underworld mingles liberty and vice. Law enforcement and copyright-protection groups such as the Digital Citizens’ Alliance in Washington, DC, prefer to emphasise the most sordid aspects of Tor’s hidden services – the sellers of drugs, weapons and child pornography. And yet the effort to create a hidden internet was driven by ideology as much as avarice. The network is used by dissidents as well as dope-peddlers. If you live under an authoritarian regime, Tor provides you with a ready-made technology for evading government controls on the internet. Even some of the seedier services trade on a certain idealism. Many libertarians believe that people should be able to buy and sell drugs without government interference, and hoped to build marketplaces to do just that, without violence and gang warfare.
Tor’s anonymity helps criminals by making it harder for the state to identify and detain them. Yet this has an ironic side-effect: it also makes it harder for them to trust each other, because they typically can’t be sure who their interlocutors are. To make money in hidden markets, you need people to trust you, so that they will buy from you and sell to you. Having accomplished this first manoeuvre, the truly successful entrepreneurs go one step further. They become middlemen of trust, guaranteeing relations between others and taking a cut from the proceeds. [Continue reading…]
James Palmer writes: On 5 July 2009, residents of Xinjiang, China’s far western province, found the internet wasn’t working. It’s a regular frustration in remote areas, but it rapidly became apparent that this time it wasn’t coming back. The government had hit the kill switch on the entire province when a protest in the capital Ürümqi by young Uighur men (of the area’s indigenous Turkic population) turned into a riot against the Han Chinese, in which at least 197 people were killed.
The shutdown was intended to prevent similar uprisings by the Uighur, long subjected to religious and cultural repression, and to halt revenge attacks by Han. In that respect, it might have worked; officially, there was no fatal retaliation, but in retrospect the move came to be seen as an error.
Speaking anonymously, a Chinese security advisor described the blackout as ‘a serious mistake… now we are years behind where we could have been in tracking terrorists’. Young Uighur learnt to see the internet as hostile territory – a lesson reinforced by the arrest of Ilham Tohti, a popular professor of economics, on trumped-up charges of extremism linked to an Uighur-language website he administered. ‘We turn off our phones before we talk politics’, a tech-savvy Uighur acquaintance remarked.
The Uighur continued to consume digital media, but increasingly in off-line form, whether viewing discs full of Turkish TV series or jihadist propaganda passed on memory sticks. Where once Chinese media reports claimed that arrested Uighur had been visiting ‘separatist’ websites, now they noted drawers full of burnt DVDs and flash drives.
A series of brutal terrorist attacks early in 2014 reinforced the lesson for the Chinese authorities; by driving Uighur off-line they had thrown away valuable data. Last summer, the Public Security University in Beijing began recruiting overseas experts in data analysis, including, I’m told, former members of the Israeli security forces.
In Xinjiang, tightened control means less information, and the Chinese government has always had a fraught relationship with information – private and public. Today, an explosion in available data promises to open up sources of knowledge previously tightly locked away. To some, this seems a shift toward democracy. But technocrats within the government also see it as a way to create a more efficient form of authoritarianism. [Continue reading…]