A Proposal for Dealing with Terrorist Videos on the Internet

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(Original posting date: 21 December 2015)

As part of the ongoing attempts by politicians around the world to falsely demonize the Internet as a fundamental cause of (or at least a willing partner in) the spread of radical terrorist ideologies, arguments have tended to focus along two parallel tracks.

First is the notorious “We have to do something about evil encryption!” track. This is the dangerously loony “backdoors into encryption for law enforcement and intelligence agencies” argument, which would result in the bad guys having unbreakable crypto, while honest citizens would have their financial and other data made vastly more vulnerable to attacks by black hat hackers as never before. That this argument is made by governments that have repeatedly proven themselves incapable of protecting citizens’ data in government databases makes this line of “reasoning” all the more laughable. More on this at:

Why Governments Lie About Encryption Backdoors

The other track in play relates to an area where there is much more room for reasoned discussion — the presence on the Net of vast numbers of terrorist-related videos, particularly the ones that directly promote violent attacks and other criminal acts.

Make no mistake about it, there are no “magic wand” solutions to be found for this problem, but perhaps we can move the ball in a positive direction with some serious effort.

Both policy and technical issues must be in focus.

In the policy realm, all legitimate Web firms already have Terms of Service (ToS) of some sort, most of which (in one way or another) already prohibit videos that directly attempt to incite violent attacks or display actual acts such as beheadings (and, for example, violence to people and animals in non-terrorism contexts). How to more effectively enforce these terms I’ll get to in a moment.

When we move beyond such directly violent videos, the analysis becomes more difficult, because we may be looking at videos that discuss a range of philosophical aspects of radicalism (both international and/or domestic in nature, and sometimes related to hate groups that are not explicitly religious). Often these videos do not make the kinds of direct, explicit calls to violence that we see in that other category of videos discussed just above.

Politicians tend to promote the broadest possible censorship laws that they can get away with, and so censorship tends to be a slippery slope that starts off narrowly and rapidly expands to other than the originally targeted types of speech.

We must also keep in mind that censorship per se is solely a government power — they’re the ones with the prison cells and shackles to seriously enforce their edicts. The Terms of Service rules promulgated by Web services are independent editorial judgments regarding what they do or don’t wish to host on their facilities.

My view is that it would be a lost cause, and potentially a dangerous infringement on basic speech and civil rights, to attempt the eradication from the Net of videos in the second category I noted — the ones basically promoting a point of view without explicitly promoting or displaying violent acts. It would be all too easy for such attempts to morph into broader, inappropriate controls on speech. And frankly, it’s very important that we be able to see these videos so that we can analyze and prepare for the philosophies being so promoted.

The correct way to fight this class of videos is with our own information, of course. We should be actively explaining why (for example) ISIL/ISIS/IS/Islamic State/Daesh philosophies are the horrific lies of a monstrous death cult.

Yes, we should be doing this effectively and successfully. And we could, if we put sufficient resources and talent behind such information efforts. Unfortunately, Western governments in particular have shown themselves to be utterly inept in this department to date.

Have you seen any of the current ISIL recruitment videos? They’re colorful, fast-paced, energetic, and incredibly professional. Absolutely state of the art 21st century propaganda aimed at young people.

By contrast, Western videos that attempt to push back against these groups seem more on the level of the boring health education slide shows we were shown in class back when I was in elementary school.

Small wonder that we’re losing this information war. This is something we can fix right now, if we truly want to.

As for that other category of videos — the directly violent and violence-inciting ones that most of us would agree have no place in the public sphere (whether they involve terrorist assassinations or perverts crushing kittens), the technical issues involved are anything but trivial.

The foundational issue is that immense amounts of video are being uploaded to services like YouTube (and now Facebook and others) at incredible rates that make any kind of human “previewing” of materials before publication entirely impractical, even if there were agreement (which there certainly is not) that such previewing was desirable or appropriate.

Services like Google’s YouTube run a variety of increasingly sophisticated automated systems to scan for various content potentially violating their ToS, but these systems are not magical in nature, and a great deal of material slips through and can stay online for long periods.

A main reason for this is that uploaders attempting to subvert the system — e.g., by uploading movies and TV shows to which they have no rights, but that they hope to monetize anyway — employ a vast range of techniques to try prevent their videos from being detected by YouTube’s systems. Some of these methods render the results looking orders of magnitude worse than an old VHS tape, but the point is that a continuing game of whack-a-mole is inevitable, even with continuing improvements in these systems, especially considering that false positives must be avoided as well.

These facts tend to render nonsensical recent claims by some (mostly nontechnical) observers that it would be “simple” for services like YouTube to automatically block “terrorist” videos, in the manner that various major services currently detect child porn images. One major difference is that those still images are detected via data “fingerprinting” techniques that are relatively effective on known still images compared against a known database, but are relatively useless outside the realm of still images, especially for videos of varied origins that are routinely manipulated by uploaders specifically to avoid detection. Two completely different worlds.

So are there practical ways to at least help to limit the worst of the violent videos, the ones that most directly portray, promote, and incite terrorism or other violent acts?

I believe there are.

First — and this would seem rather elementary — video viewers need to know that they even have a way to report an abusive video. And that mechanism shouldn’t be hidden!

For example, on YouTube currently, there is no obvious “abuse reporting” flag. You need to know to look under the nebulous “More” link, and also realize that the choice under there labeled “Report” includes abuse situations.

User Interface Psychology 101 tells us that if viewers don’t see an abuse reporting choice clearly present when viewing the video, it won’t even occur to many of them that it’s even possible to report an abusive video, so they’re unlikely to go digging around under “More” or anything else to find such a reporting system..

A side effect of my recommendation to make an obvious and clear abuse reporting link visible on the main YouTube play page (and similarly placed for other video services) would be the likelihood of a notable increase in the number of abuse reports, both accurate and not. (I suspect that the volume of reports may have been a key reason that abuse links have been increasingly “hidden” on these services’ interfaces over time).

This is not an inconsequential problem. Significant increases in abuse reports could swamp human teams working to evaluate them and to make the often complicated “gray area” determinations about whether or not a given reported video should stay online. Again, we’re talking about a massive scale of videos.

So there’s also a part two to my proposal.

I suggest that consideration be given to using volunteer or paid, “crowdsourced” populations of Internet users — on a large scale designed to average out variations in cultural attitudes for any given localizations — to act as an initial “filter” for specific classes of abuse reports regarding publicly available videos.

There are all kinds of complicated and rather fascinating details in even designing a system like this that could work properly, fairly, and avoid misuse. But the bottom line would be to help reduce to manageable levels the abuse reports that would typically reach the service provider teams, especially if significantly more reports were being made — and these teams would still be the only individuals who could actually choose to take specific reported videos offline.

Finding sufficient volunteers for such a system — albeit ones with strong stomachs considering what they’ll be viewing — would probably not prove to be particularly difficult. There are lots of folks out there who want to do their parts toward helping with these issues. Nor is it necessarily the case that only volunteers must fill these roles. This is important work, and finding some way to compensate them for their efforts could prove worthwhile for everyone concerned.

This is only a thumbnail sketch of the concept of course. But these are big problems that are going to require significant solutions. I fervently hope we can work on these issues ourselves before politicians and government bureaucrats impose their own “solutions” that will almost certainly do far more harm than good, with resulting likely untold collateral damage as well.

I believe that we can make serious inroads in these areas if we choose to do so.

One thing’s for sure though. If we don’t work to solve these problems ourselves, we’ll be giving governments yet another excuse for the deployment of ever more expansive censorship agendas that will ultimately muzzle us all.

Let’s try keep that nightmare from happening.

All the best to you and yours for the holidays!

Be seeing you.

–Lauren–
I have consulted to Google, but I am not currently doing so — my opinions expressed here are mine alone.

Why Governments Lie About Encryption Backdoors

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(Original posting date: 13 December 2015)

Despite a lack of firm evidence to suggest that the terrorist attackers in Paris, in San Bernardino, or at the Planned Parenthood center in Colorado used strong (or perhaps any) encryption to plan their killing sprees, government authorities around the planet — true to the long-standing predictions of myself and others that terrorist attacks would be exploited in this manner — are once again attempting to leverage these horrific events into arguments for requiring “backdoor” government access to the encryption systems that increasingly protect ordinary people everywhere.

This comes despite the virtual unanimity among reputable computer scientists and other encryption experts that such “master keys” to these encryption systems that protect our financial and ever more aspects of our personal lives would be fundamentally weakened by such a government access mechanism, exposing us all to exploits both via mistakes and purposeful abuse, potentially by governments and outside attacks on our data.

It’s difficult — one might say laughable — to take many of these government arguments seriously even in the first place, given the gross incompetence demonstrated by the U.S. government in breaches that exposed millions of citizens’ personal information and vast quantities of NSA secrets — and with similar events occurring around the world at the hands of other governments.

But there are smart people in government too, who fully understand the technical realities of modern strong encryption systems and how backdoors would catastrophically weaken them.

So why do they continue to argue for these backdoor mechanisms, now more loudly than ever?

The answer appears to be that they’re lying to us.

Or if lying seems like too strong a word, we could alternatively say they’re being “incredibly disingenuous” in their arguments.

You don’t need to be a computer scientist to follow the logic of how we reach this unfortunate and frankly disheartening determination regarding governments’ invocation of terrorism as an excuse for demanding crypto backdoors for authorities’ use.

We start with a fundamental fact.

The techniques of strong, uncrackable crypto are well known. The encryption genies have long since left their bottles. They will not return to them, no matter how much governments may plead, cajole, or threaten.

In fact, the first theoretically unbreakable crypto mechanisms reach back at least as far as the 19th century.

But these systems were only as good as the skill and discipline of their operators, and errors in key management and routine usage could create exploitable and crackable weaknesses — as they did in the case of the German-used “Enigma” system during World War II, for example.

The rise of modern computer and communications technologies — desktops, smartphones, and all the rest — have allowed for the “automation” of new, powerful encryption systems in ways that make them quite secure even in the hands of amateurs, and as black hat hacking exploits have subverted the personal data of millions of persons, major Web and other firms have reacted by deploying ever more powerful crypto foundations to help protect these environments that we all depend upon.

Let’s be very, very clear about this. The terrorist groups that governments consistently claim are the most dangerous to us — al-Qaeda, ISIL (aka ISIS, IS, Islamic State, or Daesh), the less talked about but at least equally dangerous domestic white supremacist groups, and others — all have access to strong encryption systems. These apps are not under the control of the Web firms that backdoor proponents attempt to frame as somehow being “enemies” of law enforcement — due to these firms’ enormously justifiable reluctance to fundamentally weaken their systems with backdoors that would expose us all to data hacking attacks.

What’s more — and you can take this to the bank — ISIL, et al. are extraordinarily unlikely to comply with requests from governments to “Please put backdoors into your homegrown strong crypto apps for us? Pretty please with sugar on it?”

Governments know this of course.

So why do they keep insisting publicly that crypto backdoors are critical to protect us from such groups, when they know that isn’t true?

Because they’re lying — er, being disingenuous with us.

They know that the smart, major terrorist groups will never use systems with government-mandated backdoors for their important communications, they’ll continue to use strong systems developed in and/or distributed by countries without such government mandates, or their own strong self-designed apps.

So it seems clear that the real reason for the government push for encryption backdoors is an attempt not to catch the most dangerous terrorists that they’re constantly talking about, but rather a selection of “low-hanging fruit” of various sorts.

Inept would-be low-level terrorists. Drug dealers. Prostitution rings. Free speech advocates and other political dissidents. You know the types.

That is, just about everybody EXCEPT the most dangerous terrorist groups that wouldn’t go near backdoored encryption systems with a ten foot pole, yet are the very groups governments are loudly claiming backdoor systems are required to fight.

Now, there’s certainly a discussion possible over whether or not massively weakening crypto with backdoors is a reasonable tradeoff to try catch some of the various much lower-level categories of offenders. But given the enormous damage done to so many people by attacks on their personal information through weak or improperly implemented encryption systems, including by governments themselves, that seems like an immensely difficult argument to rationally make.

So our logical analysis leads us inevitably to a pair of apparently indisputable facts.

Encryption systems weakened by mandated backdoors would not be effective in fighting the terrorists that governments invoke as their reason for wanting those backdoors in the first place.

And encryption weakened by mandated backdoors would put all of us — the ordinary folks around the planet who increasingly depend upon encrypted data and communications systems to protect the most intimate aspects of our personal lives — at an enormous risk of exposure from data breaches and associated online and even resulting physical attacks, including via exploitation from foreign governments and terrorist groups themselves.

Encryption backdoors are a gleeful win-win for terrorists and a horrific lose-lose for you, me, our families, our friends, and for other law-abiding persons everywhere. Backdoors would result in the worst of the bad guys having strong protections for their data, and the rest of us being hung out to dry.

It’s time to permanently close and lock the door on encryption backdoors, and throw away the key.

No pun intended, of course.

Be seeing you.

–Lauren–
I have consulted to Google, but I am not currently doing so¬†— my¬†opinions expressed here are mine alone.