Privacy, Terror, Tor, and Anonymity

tightrope walkerThe balancing act between individual privacy and counterterrorism is like an endless walk on a tightrope. Sometimes it is steady and moving forward. And sometimes a gust of wind leaves the walker unbalanced, swaying from side to side in an attempt to remain upright.

The EU's perspective on civil liberties, privacy, and freedom of movement has met the brisk breeze of terror attacks and an influx of refugees. Let's look at 2 proposals, with strong arguments for each side, that are pending in the EU.


A hotly contested development in the EU is the Passenger Name Record (PNR) directive. The proposed directive, which has been introduced and rejected several times since it was first introduced in 2011, has been voted through committee as a draft law. It must still be ratified by the full European Parliament in early 2016. In the past the bill has been rejected because the proposed gains in security were deemed disproportionately small as compared to the loss of individual rights.

The bill would require airlines to provide information about passengers on international flights arriving in or departing from the EU. This latest version allows countries to gather information on flights within the EU as well, and would prevent ticket holding EU citizens from boarding the plane if they are deemed a security threat. 

Proponents claim the bill will be an indispensable tool in the fight against terrorism. Law enforcement wants access to travel dates and itinerary, ticket information, contact details, baggage information, and payment information of anyone flying in or out of the EU.

Others are strongly against PNR, including the European Data Protection Supervisor who calls it an unjustified, massive, and indiscriminate collection of passengers’ personal information.

Critics point out that the Paris attackers were known to police weeks and months before they acted, and that knowledge did not prevent the attacks. They claim that better intelligence sharing and improved methods of analysis would be more effective. And, critics say, terrorists can simply travel by car or train.


France has added to its legislative wishlist and it seems that Tor may be on the chopping block. Tor is a way to surf anonymously around the internet, and to prevent people from being located by tracking their IP address to a physical location. 

It works by bouncing the user's traffic along a random series of servers around the world. Each bounce point sees only the server from which it received the communication, and then peels off a layer of encryption which reveals the location to send to. Anyone who watches TV has likely seen Good Computer Guys trying to trace the CyberCriminals back through a series of bounce points.  

French law enforcement says Tor is impossible to police and are asking for a complete ban or shut down of the network in France. Other governments, including the US, are equally critical, and are applying considerable resources to crack it.

And bad guys such as terrorists, criminals, and pedophiles DO like, and use, the anonymity offered by Tor and other similar services. Anonymous browsing and encryption are 2 of several internet related services that are getting lots of attention as ways that  terrorists communicate.

In addition to any discussion of an individual's right to anonymity, proponents cite the ways a service such as Tor is used for good.

Many countries conduct surveillance on their citizens, and block access to certain kinds of information or social media sites. Tor offers a way for people without safe access to free media to connect with the rest of the world and gain a global perspective. Sites that are regularly blocked by national firewalls may be accessible by using Tor, and without revealing the identity of the visitor.

In countries with repressive regimes people risk arrest or imprisonment for accessing forbidden information or sites. By hiding a users real world identity and location Tor enables a flow of information to the isolated and oppressed.

Journalists, activists, human rights workers, and other people in danger zones have information that must be delivered from monitored areas. From human rights violations to atrocities, brave people are in posession of information that needs to be reported. Citizens in ISIS held cities let the world know what life is like there, and agents in enemy held territory report on troop movements, weaponry, or number of fighters. Already at great personal risk, these people need Tor to get their critical information out.

The military often has to use infrastructure that is run and monitored by insurgents. Server logs on an insurgent website would record a known military server address and reveal who and from where connections were made to that military server. This would lead to discovery of ongoing surveillance, and reveal the presence and location of field agents. Tor obscures all information about connections to known military servers, keeping the people and their locations safe.

Anonymity is an essential weapon for law enforcement because it prevents criminals from tracking any activity, such as undercover or sting operations, back to a law enforcement or government owned server. An obvious example is the investigation of child pornography and child sex offenders. 

Buyers and sellers of child porn often connect in online chat rooms. Law enforcement officers must establish a trustworthy online persona in order to gain the trust of the offenders, and eventually identify and apprehend them. Investigators pursuing child sex offenders pose as juvenile girls or boys and make an arrest when the predator arrives to meet the child in person.

Bloggers, IT Professionals, whistleblowers, and global organizations are also common users of Tor.