If you actively choose to anonymously browse the Internet anonymously, you must be up to no good -- or at least that appears to be the mentality behind police in Japan asking ISPs to block Tor.
As cybercrime and piracy runs rampant across the globe, governments are scrabbling to find ways to combat the problem. The U.K. is attempting to protect financial and banking data by teaming up with India to create a task force against cybercriminals, and Europe is considering new legislation which would overhaul intellectual property and copyright laws -- giving new powers to law enforcement agencies to enforce "technical measures" including website blocking and ISP monitoring to prevent online theft.
Across the pond, the controversial CISPA bill is on its way to the Senate. The Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act allows private firms to search sensitive data of U.S. citizens in the name of identifying threats and cybercrime, although critics argue that by allowing this without a search warrant, fourth amendment rights are in jeopardy.
The U.S. government has come under criticism for lax privacy and data protection practices, but it hasn't stopped President Obama from stating that cybercrime is now more of a problem than terrorism, and now more money is being thrown at cyberdefense in the new fiscal budget.
However, the issue of cybercrime and piracy is not just about investment, but also political reaction. Hackers are finding themselves behind bars, and the U.S. government is using piracy as an excuse to threaten trade sanctions against countries that don't have strong sets of piracy laws in place. (That's certainly one way to protect your interests and lobbyists I suppose.)
No-one denies that cybercrime and piracy is a problem, but so many governments seem to follow the same pattern. If a service -- such as the BitTorrent protocol or the anonymizing system Tor -- can be used to facilitate illegal activity, no matter the benefits, then rather than try to understand it, the system should be stamped out.
As an example, U.K. ISPs have blocked magnet-link search website The Pirate Bay, and it's oh-so-difficult to use Google to find a proxy, isn't it? (Perhaps time and energy should have been spent on understanding the issue rather than panic-blocking, which does nothing but add a few seconds on the road to "stumbling" across the website.)
Japan's National Police Agency (NPA) seems to follow this train of thought. According to The Mainichi, officials are asking Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to voluntarily block Tor if "abuse is found."
Considering that Tor anonymizes Internet traffic, you could draw the conclusion that rather than relying on individual transgressions, officials would simply assume that making yourself untrackable and invisible online is an indication of unlawful activity. If you don't want us to see what you're doing, you must be up to no good.
It's a step beyond the agency's previous experiences of chasing cats in a hacker treasure hunt and extracting "confessions" from innocent Japanese citizens while hackers gleefully goaded police as the charged remained in custody. The government is obviously having a tough time dealing with cybercrime, and so the NPA would prefer to simply block programs and services that cause them issues. The agency have written a report which states that "blocking online communications at the discretion of site administrators will be effective" in preventing online threats. According to the publication, the NPA has cited financial fraud, online threats of murder and child abuse as main reasons why Tor should be blocked.
However, in light of how hackers have goaded and ridiculed the police department, the last reason is probably of most note: Tor's use in "leakages of security information from the Metropolitan Police Department." In other words, Tor embarrassed us, so let's get it closed down. The fact Tor has been used in pro-democracy and whistleblower situations worldwide notwithstanding.
Japanese citizens who want to use Tor for whistleblowing or simply to stay invisible don't have to worry quite yet about the agency's desire to crack down on Web freedom. One industry insider told The Mainichi that "Communication privacy is our lifeline. We won't be able to accept such a request," and with any luck, an industry backlash could force the agency to look at more sensible ways to combat cybercrime and piracy -- or they could simply go back to chasing cats.
Image credit: Ryusuke