To anyone thinking about beefing up their computer security, a new 'see something, say, something' memo from the U.S. Department of Justice might be a little disconcerting. Part of their ongoing "Communities Against Terrorism" awareness campaign designed to provoke citizen paranoia, the new flyer is being distributed at internet cafes, and augments the FBI's ever-growing list of "suspicious" activities. Newly added to the list: the use of online privacy measures like the web traffic anonymizer Tor, which was developed by the US Navy and promoted by the State Department in order to allow for more free communications in repressive regimes.
Ignoring that such technologies are designed and used to meet legitimate security and privacy needs — preventing the transcript of an important business meeting from being intercepted by rival companies, for instance — the FBI wants us to know that anyone using these rudimentary security measures might be dangerous. The list also includes other alarmingly innocuous qualifiers such as: Encrypting files, using a private connection hosted by home internet providers like Time Warner or Comcast, communicating through a PC game, or just generally "being overly concerned with privacy" and attempting to "shield the screen from the view of others."
As it turns out though, we all have a lot of things to hide that have nothing to do with secret terrorist plots born of Hollywood movie scripts: Sensitive medical documents protected under doctor-patient confidentiality, business contacts, designs for a new game-changing product … the list of legitimate, sensitive materials we routinely transmit over the internet is nearly endless.
And of course there are dangers: Public WiFi hotspots, while typically free and accompanied by a nice cup of coffee, can be dangerous if taken lightly. Meanwhile, our search histories and social networking data assemble creepily detailed portraits of our selves from digital fragments, and those portraits are being continually exploited by others. In the ever-shifting minefield of cybersecurity, where one vulnerability can expose all this and more, shouldn't it be the people who aren't taking precautions we should worry about?
It's not just computers and the internet either. The FBI has seen fit to similarly identify "suspicious" practices and behaviors across a wide gamut of settings including electronics stores, storage facilities, shopping malls and more. Whether it's encrypting files or wearing a certain brand of watch, there's no shortage of nebulous qualifiers that authorities have deemed to be cause for suspicion.
Of course, these campaigns aren't about acknowledging the realities of the areas they're concerned with — they are about teaching people to trust the government and no one else. That's why the FBI would rather staple a tin foil hat to your head than have you spend a weekend online learning about how to actually protect your data from online intruders, including them. But it's nothing personal, Big Brother. Perhaps if our electronic privacy laws hadn't been last updated in 1986, we'd have a little less to worry about.