UK Parliament study finds banning anonymity unworkable and unethical

No sooner had body bags been drawn over the victims of January’s appalling attack on the staff Charlie Hebdo, who died because of their belief in freedom of speech, than UK Prime Minister David Cameron announced plans to restrict free speech in response to the attack – specifically by preventing people from talking privately on the internet using encryption technologies.

The powers that I believe we need, whether on communications data or on the content of communications, I am very comfortable that those are absolutely right for a modern, liberal democracy.. I will make sure that it is a comprehensive piece of legislation that makes sure we do not allow terrorists safe space to communicate with each other… That is the key principle: do we allow safe spaces for them to talk to each other? I say no, we don’t, and we should legislate accordingly.

An appreciation of irony is obviously not one of Mr Cameron’s stronger characteristics.

One of the most popular and effective privacy protection technologies available is the Tor network, and on Monday Cameron’s plans to ban encryption technologies received a serious blow from the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) advisory body, which in its Darknet and Online Anonymity report (.pdf) describes any plans to Tor as being both unworkable on a technical level, and undesirable from a moral point of view,

There is widespread agreement that banning online anonymity systems altogether is not seen as an acceptable policy option in the UK. Even if it were, there would be technical challenges.

The report, which is designed to introduce the notion of ‘darknets’ to technologically unsophisticated MPs, notes how difficult it is to de-anonymise Tor users,

It [may be] possible to de-anonymise Tor users by exploiting technical limitations of Tor. However, this requires a high level of computer expertise and significant resources. In a leaked document from 2007, the US National Security Agency (NSA) stated that it “will never be able to deanonymize all Tor users all the time”, but with “manual analysis” a “very small fraction of Tor users” can be deanonymised.

It also takes some time to explain the beneficial uses of anonymity, such as for circumventing censorship, anonymous activism and journalism, and protection from criminals.

One aspect of Tor that has caused particular alarm in the press is the use of Tor Hidden Services (THS) to hide pedophile sites, but the report largely dismisses any such concerns,

The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Command (CEOP) of the UK National Crime Agency says that THS play only a minor role in the online viewing and distribution of indecent images of children. In 2013, the Internet Watch Foundation took action on 36 THS for containing such material, compared to 1,624 domains on the open web.

Rather, the report broadly defends the use of Tor Hidden Services,

Some argue for a Tor without hidden services, because of the criminal content on some THS. However, THS also benefit non-criminal Tor users because they may add a further layer of user security. If a user accesses a THS the communication never leaves the Tor Network and the communication is encrypted from origin to destination. Therefore, sites requiring strong security, like whistleblowing platforms are offered as THS. Also, computer experts argue that any legislative attempt to preclude THS from being available in the UK over Tor would be technologically infeasible.

Here at BestVPN we think it great to hear such common-sense talk from a Parliamentary body, but it should be noted that although its recommendations can be influential, POST has no direct say in government policy, and it is very possible that Cameron will choose to ignore its findings…

UK Briefing on Tor

Douglas Crawford I am a freelance writer, technology enthusiast, and lover of life who enjoys spinning words and sharing knowledge for a living. Find me on Google+

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