This story surfaced last week during the Katrina mess. It's time for another look...
Human rights concerns have brought the tension between individual rights and Big Brother to the global level. If wrestling with individual rights on the one hand and the need for collective security on the other was not enough, we now get to figure out how to deal with privacy issues in the international arena. Pebble Pie is in orbit because she just learned (as did I) that Yahoo, according to Reporters Without Borders, is in bed with the Chinese authorities, handing over email contents, IP addresses and other "confidential" information which the Chinese authorities then use to bring charges against users of Yahoo Mail accounts. More information is available at Global Voices.
The comments on all these sites, as well as my own inclinations, see Yahoo as the villain in this story. But when I read her post I recalled a Washington Post article that I came across last month describing how modern terrorist organizations, unlike their ignorant little brothers with the Taliban (Crash that TV! Ban those toothbrushes!) use technology for their purposes.
Among other tactics, anyone who wants to pass information from one place to another can easily do so by using an email account. Many are free and all can be accessed anywhere in the world by password. The technique is elegantly simple.
1.) Open an account
2.) Write information you want to transmit in a draft email, but don't "send."
3.) Save the draft
4.) Alert your target and furnish the name and password of the account
The receiver of the account name and password can now access the account, read and delete the "draft" and voila! The information is "shared" and no one had a chance to see it, even if they were straining all the data of the World Wide Web for keywords (and they are, by the way - Google Echelon).
Apart from its ideology and clandestine nature, the jihadist cyberworld is little different in structure from digital communities of role-playing gamers, eBay coin collectors or disease sufferers. Through continuous online contact, such communities bind dispersed individuals with intense beliefs who might never have met one another in the past. Along with radical jihad, the Internet also has enabled the flow of powerful ideas and inspiration in many other directions, such as encouraging democratic movements and creating vast new commercial markets. Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq more than two years ago, the Web's growth as a jihadist meeting and training ground has accelerated.
But al Qaeda's move into cyberspace is far from total. Physical sanctuaries or unmolested spaces in Sunni Muslim-dominated areas of Iraq, in ungoverned tribal territories of Pakistan, in the southern Philippines, Africa and Europe still play important roles. Most violent al Qaeda-related attacks -- even in the most recent period of heavy jihadist Web use -- appear to involve leaders or volunteers with some traditional training camp or radical mosque backgrounds.
But the Web's growing centrality in al Qaeda-related operations and incitement has led such analysts as former CIA deputy director John E. McLaughlin to describe the movement as primarily driven today by "ideology and the Internet."
The Web's shapeless disregard for national boundaries and ethnic markers fits exactly with bin Laden's original vision for al Qaeda, which he founded to stimulate revolt among the worldwide Muslim ummah , or community of believers. Bin Laden's appeal among some Muslims has long flowed in part from his rare willingness among Arab leaders to surround himself with racially and ethnically diverse followers, to ignore ancient prejudices and national borders. In this sense of utopian ambition, the Web has become a gathering place for a rainbow coalition of jihadists. It offers al Qaeda "a virtual sanctuary" on a global scale, Rand Corp. terrorism specialist Bruce Hoffman said. "The Internet is the ideal medium for terrorism today: anonymous but pervasive."
In Afghanistan, the Taliban banned television and even toothbrushes as forbidden modern innovations. Yet al Qaeda, led by educated and privileged gadget hounds, adapted early and enthusiastically to the technologies of globalization, and its Arab volunteers managed to evade the Taliban's screen-smashing technology police.
Bin Laden used some of the first commercial satellite telephones while hiding out in Afghanistan. He produced propaganda videos with hand-held cameras long before the genre became commonplace. Bin Laden's sons played computer games in their compound in Jalalabad, recalled the journalist Abdel Bari Atwan, who interviewed bin Laden late in 1996.
As much as I hate the notion of authorities, Chinese or otherwise, accessing private information I have to concede that it may be the price to be paid for security. Information is a more powerful weapon than any ordnance. The use (or misuse) of information can shape the political will of a population, mobilizing a national purpose toward any goal. The World Wars were played out on battlefields, but the outcomes were ultimately determined by the political wills of the combatant populations and how those intentions were mobilized.
Spying can provide a less-violent means of conflict resolution than fighting. So in the interest of diplomacy, politics and shaping political wills, I have to side with Yahoo. A strong, competitive corporation makes a better invasion of China's historic isolation than any other force. Technology and the internet are only tools. If we fail to use them, as UBL has shown, someone else will. [Ahem...I'm starting to rethink this idea. See followup below.]
The next step for the terrorists, of course, will be to use private, secure accounts in the same way that the now use the freeware. That raises serious legal issues, doesn't it? Such a tactic puts the law on the side of enemies. Like Swiss bank accounts, secure sites are the next logical step in the progression. That may be what we need to think about next.
It seems Yahoo made a bad move...
Yahoo! had a choice. It chose to provide an e-mail service hosted on servers based inside China, making itself subject to Chinese legal jurisdiction. It didn't have to do that. It could have provided a service hosted offshore only. If Shi Tao's email account had been hosted on servers outside of China, Yahoo! wouldn't have been legally obligated to hand over his information.
Daniel Drezner has a follow-up post full of links.
Here is an interesting reference from Foreign Affairs. Looks like "conventional wisdom" isn't what it seems...
Until quite recently, conventional wisdom has held that economic development, wherever it occurs, will lead inevitably -- and fairly quickly -- to democracy. The argument, in its simplest form, runs like this: economic growth produces an educated and entrepreneurial middle class that, sooner or later, begins to demand control over its own fate. Eventually, even repressive governments are forced to give in.
The fact that almost all of the richest countries in the world are democratic was long taken as iron-clad evidence of this progression. Recent history, however, has complicated matters. As events now suggest, the link between economic development and what is generally called liberal democracy is actually quite weak and may even be getting weaker. Although it remains true that among already established democracies, a high per capita income contributes to stability, the growing number of affluent authoritarian states suggests that greater wealth alone does not automatically lead to greater political freedom. Authoritarian regimes around the world are showing that they can reap the benefits of economic development while evading any pressure to relax their political control. Nowhere is this phenomenon more evident than in China and Russia. Although China's economy has grown explosively over the last 25 years, its politics have remained essentially stagnant. In Russia, meanwhile, the economy has recently improved even as the Kremlin has tightened the political reins.
The overlap of these trends -- economic growth and shrinking political freedom -- is more than a historical curiosity. It points to an ominous and poorly appreciated fact: economic growth, rather than being a force for democratic change in tyrannical states, can sometimes be used to strengthen oppressive regimes. Zhao Ziyang, China's premier during the 1980s, may have been right when he argued, "Democracy is not something that socialism can avoid." But there is now plenty of evidence to suggest that autocratic and illiberal governments of various stripes can at least delay democracy for a very long time. Over the past half century, a large number of such regimes have undergone extensive economic growth without any corresponding political liberalization. In other cases, autocrats have been forced to introduce modest political changes but have nonetheless managed to limit their scope and hold on to power.
Anybody got a recipe for crow? Needs to have a fairly big yield because a lot of people besides me will have to be eating some.