Sunday, February 26, 2006

The Road To Hell Is Paved With Good Intentions

Via Alas, a blog I stumbled across Den of the Biting Beaver... angry, yes, but that's where the fun is. Also, gotta give them points for the picture. But I digress... Perusing the site I found this post, which seems to indicate that the site operators are providing IP addresses to the FBI and The Center for Missing and Exploited Children if the operators feel that the search (scroll down, look for "disturbingly deviant") associated with the IP is suggestive of some sort of child exploitation. First off, I had no idea that blog owners were doing that sort of thing. No, not the searches, but the referring of IP addresses. Just another reminder, boys and girls, that anonymity on the Internet is largely illusory. Their motives seem pure enough, but the practice seems problematic. Consider:
  • IANAL, but the searches themselves aren't illegal.
  • Such searches don't actually seem to turn up illegal material. For example, searching for "looking for boys to rape" on Google (totally not worksafe) turns up gay porn and rape sites. Distasteful to many, yes, but nothing that appears to involve minors. Ditto for other variants like "boy porn" and"preteen girl porn". Lots of metatags with questionable terminology, but the actual content seems to be 100% legit.
So at this point I have to ask whether selecting IPs via their associated search strings even addresses the issue? I suspect that bona-fide pedophile sites do their best to keep off of the radar and that you're unlikely to find them through casual searching. The people who are getting caught in this sort of dragnet are probably perverts who are engaging in protected First Amendment activities. Given the above let's assume that people who are engaging in legitimate and protected activities will get swept up along with more nefarious folk. Here's what happens to them next:
The IP addys of non-convicted people (normal people) are logged and cross referenced into another database. The program will 'flag' repeated suspicious behavior. The Government will then ask the provider to track the IP address and the sites it is accessing for a period of time (no, the agent did NOT tell me how long). If the sites accessed are not child pornography sites and only the searches are suspicious then nothing happens. And that is because you haven’t committed a crime until you click onto a kiddie porn site
What, exactly, counts as "repeated suspicious behavior"? Is it something bona fide illegal, or is it just more of the above? 'Cause we've already established that treating these searches as suspicious is problematic at best. What really makes me mad, though, is that BB is putting forth something that sounds to me like a variant on the old "the innocent have nothing to hide" routine. So you get flagged, your ISP watches you, they find out that you're not looking at child porn, and they stop watching you. But in the interim people have been logging your (perfectly legitimate) browsing behavior. What's that, you object? You probably also send letters in envelopes! What are you trying to hide? Upstanding citizens have no need for privacy! I'm indulging in a little bit of hyperbole, but not much. Somehow there's this idea in the general public that its OK for the government to monitor you if they might catch criminals in the process. This is exactly like the NSA eavesdropping scandal; I don't care if its terrorists or pedophiles or fiendish fluoridators, but violating the rights of broad swaths of the public in the hopes that some criminals will get caught as well is not something that anyone should endorse. And there's other, lesser arguments against this practice as well. Consider the selection bias introduced when you start referring some searches and not others. Also, there's an aspect of vigilantism in this whole thing that needs to be considered. And why, pray tell, does BB assume that the people who are doing the searches are all men?

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