Child pornography is one of the more pernicious examples of human depravity, and is rightly reviled by the public. It has therefore been co-opted by the government as a useful foil in the melee against the anonymous web mechanism Tor.
Tor is a tool that allows people to communicate without government interference, control or oversight. Because of that, it is bound to be vilified in the media, in much the same way that P2P technologies were some years ago. An online anonymity service, was it created first, or was it created as a response to ugly, intrusive law enforcement actions with regard to personal communications? But one thing is for certain in this chicken and the egg argument- the government is seeking to occupy the moral high ground. That it does so with specious facts and figures, well never mind, all’s fair as the saying goes.
The latest example of government over-exaggeration comes courtesy of the US Department of Justice (DOJ). At the State of the Net conference in Washington last week, US Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell discussed what she described as the dangers of encryption and cryptographic anonymity tools like Tor, and their effect on hampering law enforcement. Her remarks continued the chorus of law enforcement disenchantment with tech companies and software technology that protects privacy from ubiquitous surveillance apparatuses. To drive home the point graphically, she cited a study that, according to her, proved that a preponderance of Tor’s anonymity traffic relates to pedophilia.
“Tor obviously was created with good intentions, but it is a huge problem for law enforcement,” Caldwell remarked. ’’We understand that 80 percent of traffic on the Tor network involves child pornography.” Whoa! What a stunning statement.
What is more alarming is that it is based on a faulty logic and flawed fact pattern. She erroneously attributed her comments to a University of Portsmouth study last December, but the story did not say that 80 percent of all Tor traffic was related to child pornography, but that 80 percent of Tor’s hidden services may be devoted to child pornography activities.
The hidden services are usually the websites run in Tor- the so called ’’dark web” which obscures the physical location of the servers that run them. This is not the common usage of Tor which is used on conventional websites to avoid censorship and surveillance- or 99 percent of Tor usage.
As you would expect, the DOJ did not comment on this discrepancy and that the U. Of Portsmouth study dealt exclusively with visits to its hidden services. Also, contributing to the pedophilia aspect of Tor, still a numbingly revolting practice, is the likelihood that even this minuscule figure is enhanced by law enforcement and anti-abuse agencies themselves, who often visit child porn sites to identify, track and infiltrate them. They often flood fraudulent traffic at the sites, hoping to disable them.
But let’s be clear – the fact that even a portion of the dark web’s traffic involves child sex is unsavory and unsatisfactory, and raises the hackles of those who argue that surveillance and security trump privacy. We’re not supporting this deviant behavior in any way, shape or form. But when a public official like Caldwell makes such egregious errors in remarks to a public audience, she deserves to be called out for them and her argument debunked. Also, it should be pointed out that the site caters to an even greater number of whistle blowers and discussion forums. Even Facebook now has a Tor hidden service!
Tor and its hidden services are distinct. In fact, some of Tor’s non-hidden service applications are used by citizens in China and Iran to evade their government’s online repression. Moreover, US entities -law enforcement and intelligence agencies use Tor to gather data without detection, to the extent that the American military and Dept. Of State actually help fund Tor. It would seem that Caldwell, in shooting off her mouth, instead shot herself in the foot.