Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2007/11/01/terror_scanning_home_computers/

How just thinking about terrorism became illegal

What's on your hard drive could mean hard time

By George Smith, Dick Destiny

Posted in Law, 1st November 2007 13:15 GMT

"A proposal to scan suspect hard drives causes unease in [Germany]," read a recent frontpage story in the Los Angeles Times. Positioned boldly above the fold, the reporter and editors recognized the potential keen interest in anything having to do with the implementation of snooping in "My Documents".

In the United Kingdom it's no longer surprising to find that in the absence of significant physical evidence, documents, weblinks and cached pages found on suspects' hard disks are enough to send them over on terror charges.

In the conviction of Scottish student Mohammed Atif Siddique, a source recently informs that publicized terror writings on the man's computer existed as links on pages - never mounted on the web - pointing to copies of jihadi materials published on the scholarly site, Project for the Research of Islamist Movements.

The reader can immediately intuit that having a link or links somewhere in your system, no matter where they point, and being Muslim when the police arrive at the door, can be enough to get you in deep trouble.

It was not always exactly like this. During the sweep which netted the alleged ricin cell, one young man was arrested with a copy of the ricin recipe downloaded from the Temple of the Screaming Electron, which is where Google will take you if you punch in "how to make ricin" and then click the "I'm Feeling Lucky" tab. He was subsequently released.

Times have changed. Now, conviction for possession of a terror-enabling script would be more likely.

For the expansion of German law enforcement spying, the scanning for jihadi documents and plans through Trojan horse programs, the Los Angeles paper posited through statements of authorities, that the computer was a precise window on the soul.

Are these your documents, Sir?

"The laptops of one of the suspects in a bungled bombing [from 2006] contained plans, sketches and maps - a virtual road map to an attack that could have killed dozens," stated the newspaper. "What if law enforcement had been able to secretly scan the contents of the computer before the attack was carried out?"

The terrorists bungled their bomb-making. Nothing exploded. They were caught, making the argument a poor one.

However, the fear-monger - one who makes any manner of surveillance sound reasonable - is always waiting with the ultimate trump.

"A terrorist attack with nuclear weapons is certain," reported the Times, citing a statement by German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble. "The question is no longer whether an attack could be carried out by terrorists, but when."

The dull reality is that most people and terrorists are not obviously devilishly accomplished at mass murder. An attack with a nuclear weapon can be imagined some future dark day, but it is not certain. Jihadists are banged up on possession of tracts from the Anarchist's Cookbook, excerpts from a variety of poison and explosives handbook translations with origins in the lunatic fringe of American publishing, and other materials much less stirring than detailed plots to detonate a nuclear weapon in a nation's capital.

The counter-terror response of proactively scanning home computers on the sly is disproportionate to the nature of the threat.

A large number of jihadi documents have been distributed widely on the world wide web – not only by terror groups, but by academics, journalists, and others. As such, they are not just of interest to terrorists. They also, rather obviously, arouse intense curiosity in a broader populace.

Cut and paste terror

DD blog has put a number online, including one with an identifier in signifying its previous owner as the Los Angeles Times newspaper. It's a portion of the Manchester manual and it was sent in 2005 by a Times reporter who wanted an explanation of its nature and an evaluation of the capability it did or did not confer. He was told it was part of the Manchester manual, originally recovered in England, now commonly called the al Qaeda manual by the US Department of Justice, and that the Times's portion of it granted little or no capability. Why someone from the newspaper had taken the original and neatly retyped it into Word format was a mystery.

Since being put online along with other similar documents, it has been downloaded many, many times, now existing on hard disks around the world. One ventures to say most of the people who have taken the time to download it are not terrorists or jihadists making plans.

While a typical counter-terror man might consider every instance of downloading from DD blog centered on the search strings "how to make poisons" or "how to make a bomb," from Karachi or Islamabad, as evidence of a lurking terrorist, we cannot be sure that this is so. And we are reasonably sure it is not so with the vast majority of such international requests.

However, if one faintly concedes that surreptitiously scanning hard disks for such things is a good idea, then one must also realize that a fragment of the Manchester manual, and many other things, are designated in court as roadmaps for terror attacks. They look bad, decidedly grim if the prosecution is pursuing a case of nipping homegrown terror in the bud. For the purposes of prosecuting terror on the basis of virtual evidence, a presumption is that no one but a terrorist owns such documents. The leveraging and applying of such beliefs is a way toward putting people in jail in the absence of malign physical evidence.

If you have such things on your PC, would you mind if a government counter-terror agency scanned for them, notating the results to an indelible secret file in the security bureaucracy?

The Los Angeles Times reported the Chaos Computer Club "has pledged to find and publish the first [German] government Trojan", and cited a lawyer saying: "If a person can be punished only because of what [authorities] suppose he has in his mind... then we have crossed an important line."

Currently, the pusillanimous belief - that the terror threat merits all steps to prevent it - appears to be the winning game. ®

George Smith is a senior fellow at GlobalSecurity.org, a defense affairs think tank and public information group. At Dick Destiny, he blogs his way through chemical, biological, and nuclear terror hysteria, often by way of the contents of neighbourhood hardware stores.