France reportedly considers blocking Tor, public Wi-Fi in wake of Paris attacks

France1
France’s government is reportedly considering a set of proposals that would give it unprecedented authority to control network communications. These new proposals are a response to the terrorist attacks in Paris last month that killed 130 people. In the wake of such events, the public often pressures politicians to “do something,” but it’s not clear that these proposals are the right thing to do.
The French newspaper Le Monde reports that the Wi-Fi restrictions would give the French government the authority to outlaw free or shared Wi-Fi connections during a state of emergency. Such connections can theoretically be used anonymously, which makes it more difficult for security forces to track suspects. The French security forces have also requested the ability to search vehicles and luggage without consent and to conduct identification checks without justification. All of these changes would apply to France’s state of emergency powers, and would presumably not be in effect for an indefinite period of time.
The proposal to ban Tor, however, is a non-emergency power act that would “forbid and block” the service from operating within France. VPN providers in the country would also be required to turn over encryption keys to the French government upon request.

The Paris encryption myth

Almost as soon as the Paris attacks began, a rumor began to circulate that the terrorists had planned their attacks using non-standard modes of communication, like the PS4, or via encrypted services that government agencies couldn’t penetrate. Pundits speculated that the attacks must have been the work of sleeper agents embedded in Syrian refugee populations, feeding the idea that mass immigration to Europe was the problem.
These various narratives have since been proven false, but that hasn’t stopped the security state from chasing their implications. The fact that the terrorists were EU citizens rather than refugees is relevant — it means that these individuals were already known to the EU. The European Union has its own monitoring and analysis programs in place; France is a member of a wider security network referred to as “Nine Eyes.”
Tor-Encryption
Tor isn’t perfectly secure, but it can make surveillance significantly more difficult.
The mastermind of the Paris attacks, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, was located thanks to a plaintext message sent via SMS on a discarded cell phone. Thus far, no evidence has been found to suggest that the terrorists relied on encryption or made use of it to plan the attacks.
National security agencies have a two-pronged approach to terrorist attacks and other threats. If an attack succeeds, it’s touted as proof that the agencies in question need more power and less oversight to defend the civilian population. If an attack is thwarted, it’s proof that the sweeping powers and minimal oversight previously granted to the organization are absolutely necessary to prevent terrorism. The fact that these powers are almost never responsible for breakthroughs in terrorism investigations is quietly swept under the table. Post-Snowden, the NSA has been forced to admit that its surveillance of Americans and foreign persons of interest has yet to prevent a single attack.
Blocking Tor might soothe the knee-jerk “do something” mentality, but it’s not going to help France fight terrorism in the long term. The United States’ comprehensive monitoring programs have not been shown to help in our own anti-terrorism investigations. Banning or blocking encryption, or the entire Tor network, simply will not solve this problem.
France’s government is reportedly considering a set of proposals that would give it unprecedented authority to control network communications. These new proposals are a response to the terrorist attacks in Paris last month that killed 130 people. In the wake of such events, the public often pressures politicians to “do something,” but it’s not clear that these proposals are the right thing to do.
The French newspaper Le Monde reports that the Wi-Fi restrictions would give the French government the authority to outlaw free or shared Wi-Fi connections during a state of emergency. Such connections can theoretically be used anonymously, which makes it more difficult for security forces to track suspects. The French security forces have also requested the ability to search vehicles and luggage without consent and to conduct identification checks without justification. All of these changes would apply to France’s state of emergency powers, and would presumably not be in effect for an indefinite period of time.
The proposal to ban Tor, however, is a non-emergency power act that would “forbid and block” the service from operating within France. VPN providers in the country would also be required to turn over encryption keys to the French government upon request.

The Paris encryption myth

Almost as soon as the Paris attacks began, a rumor began to circulate that the terrorists had planned their attacks using non-standard modes of communication, like the PS4, or via encrypted services that government agencies couldn’t penetrate. Pundits speculated that the attacks must have been the work of sleeper agents embedded in Syrian refugee populations, feeding the idea that mass immigration to Europe was the problem.
These various narratives have since been proven false, but that hasn’t stopped the security state from chasing their implications. The fact that the terrorists were EU citizens rather than refugees is relevant — it means that these individuals were already known to the EU. The European Union has its own monitoring and analysis programs in place; France is a member of a wider security network referred to as “Nine Eyes.”
Tor-Encryption
Tor isn’t perfectly secure, but it can make surveillance significantly more difficult.
The mastermind of the Paris attacks, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, was located thanks to a plaintext message sent via SMS on a discarded cell phone. Thus far, no evidence has been found to suggest that the terrorists relied on encryption or made use of it to plan the attacks.
National security agencies have a two-pronged approach to terrorist attacks and other threats. If an attack succeeds, it’s touted as proof that the agencies in question need more power and less oversight to defend the civilian population. If an attack is thwarted, it’s proof that the sweeping powers and minimal oversight previously granted to the organization are absolutely necessary to prevent terrorism. The fact that these powers are almost never responsible for breakthroughs in terrorism investigations is quietly swept under the table. Post-Snowden, the NSA has been forced to admit that its surveillance of Americans and foreign persons of interest has yet to prevent a single attack.

Blocking Tor might soothe the knee-jerk “do something” mentality, but it’s not going to help France fight terrorism in the long term. The United States’ comprehensive monitoring programs have not been shown to help in our own anti-terrorism investigations. Banning or blocking encryption, or the entire Tor network, simply will not solve this problem.
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