Thursday, April 9, 2009

Radical Islamist groups overseas use U.S. web hosts, raising possible questions about censorship, security; British security gaffe causes a crisis

The left side of the front page of the Washington Post, Thursday, April 9, 2009, leads off with a most alarming column headline, “Extremist Web Sites Are Using U.S. Hosts: Ease and Anonymity Draw Taliban and Al-Qaeda”, with the detailed story by Joby Warrick and Candace Rondeaux. The link is here. Early Thursday morning, this story was the leading link at the Washington Post.

The gist of the story is at extremist groups overseas (especially from radical Islam) use American hosts because of their reputation for low cost and reliable service, and the “don’t ask don’t tell” practice – that is, a presumption that the customer will abide by the rules and the absence or proactive monitoring. ISP’s named in the story include The Planet, in Houston and Free Web Town from Tulix Systems in Atlanta. The story named sites that gave updates, from the viewpoint of “the enemy”, the progress of fights in Afghanistan. The for-purchase print version (but not online) gave a snapshot of one of the sites with its typical content (on p A7).

The same Washington Post story also appears this morning as a lead story for the Houston Chronicle (which has the byline “Taliban’s battle updates dispatched via Houston”) link here. I could not find a story on this readily on the Atlanta Journal-Constitution yet.

Some such "enemy" sites continue to operate, but at least one was removed after a “complaint” from a particular blogger, and some were removed after complaints from the governments of Pakistan or Afghanistan. These governments claim (or perhaps complain) that the U.S. has allowed the sites to remain up for “intelligence value” but the Rand Corporation (a defense think tank in Santa Monica CA, which developed a well respected study and detailed strategy proposal to the Clinton Administration recommending the lifting of the ban on gays in the military back in 1993), indicated that the sites probably carried few “secrets” and that most of the content of these sites exists for “public affairs” which, when from sites like these, means anti-Western “propaganda.”

The Post story focused on content from overseas groups that admittedly are viewed as “enemies”. Indeed, the headlines (particularly from the Houston paper) tend to stress the connection more to specific wartime enemies than to a more general issue that could compromise legitimate free speech. Probably, it is reasonable to suppose that other groups (like drug cartels in Colombia or Mexico) could run such sites but do not because such information would lead authorities to them. In Afghanistan, Pakistan and still, to some extent, Iraq, the lack of complete control over the areas (especially tribal areas in the Afghan-Pakistan area) make it difficult for military authorities to use information in the sites. In the United States, various extremist groups (especially on the far “right”, and sometimes claiming to be “Christian”) walk the line of what is legally and practically permissible with some of their content, but federal authorities can monitor their activities from their content, sometimes.

ISP’s, publishing services and social networking sites normally require that customers agree to “terms of service” or “acceptable use policies”. Back in the 1990s, AOL had to work hard to explain this concept to its growing customer base and rewrite its “rules of the road” in plain English. Most of the terms of service seem like common sense now, but with “free speech” there will be gray areas. It is not always easy for the public to distinguish “meta speech” (reporting “about” something) from inflammatory advocacy from amateur, free-entry sources (as opposed to stories from the established press, as with the linked Post story) and this could become a problem if web hosting companies are expected to monitor this kind of activity in the future (which they say they cannot afford to do). Publishing services and ISP’s do have automated tools to monitor for spam and certain specific violations but not for violent content as a whole. But, again, the concern in this story specifically seems to be with content written by overseas groups and compromising the security of US and especially foreign (such as Pakistani) military operations against terrorists (or possibly drug cartels).

Right after 9/11, authorities expressed another related but somewhat distinct concern, the idea that ordinary websites (overseas or hosted in the West) could be compromised and hacked to pass along “steganographic” messages. Generally, concern over this possibility seems to have died down. Because of business consolidation after the 2001 recession and dot-com bust, there are fewer small, weakly funded ISP’s, and larger ISP’s have substantially improved their security in the past five years or so (I can tell this from conversations with their tech support). However, inadvertent lapses (such as leaving ports or site commands open) are possible at any ISP.

“Ordinary” people hosting and writing for sites with politically or socially (even through non-violent and generally acceptable) content sometimes attract “tips” that law enforcement and intelligence misses, and the idea of journalist shield laws and the responsibilities of bloggers in these circumstances comes into consideration. I’ve covered this problem on other postings. Electronic Frontier Foundation has posted a lot of information for bloggers as journalists; and “amateur” reporting, even on very troubling matters, can add valuable information to public debate (by “connecting more dots”) and even be valuable for intelligence.

Major gaffe in Britain as classified papers are accidentally exposed in public, and leak to web:

The best story on this incident seems to be in the London Times online, by Sean O’Neill, Andrew Norfolk, Russell Jenkins and Michael Evans, link here. Britain's senior counterterrorism officer Bob Quick resigned after allowing a document to show in public as he got out of the car. The document linked to the Internet, with the names and locations of suspects. The Times provides pictures of the document, with the names blocked out, in a slide show. Britain scrambled to make massive arrests immediately, of plans which may have involved Manchester England and Pakistan. Again, the Internet and WWW "cut both ways."

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