America clamps down on online anonymity, the last refuge of Mexico’s free press
The last time I went to Mexico I was mugged at gunpoint on the same day that the country’s anti-drug czar was found to be a paid informant for its cartels. Since then, things have become so much worse that they now approach the surreal: in August, seventy-two migrants were massacred for refusing to become cartel assassins; in September, the prosecutors assigned to the crime were murdered as well. The cartels slaughter police and politicians with impunity; they have built roadblocks to wall off highways and entire downtowns. Meanwhile, corruption is beyond rampant — one of the major cartels, Los Zetas, is led by former Mexican Army Special Forces soldiers.
And those are just the stories we know. The Mexican press regularly censors itself, and who can blame it, when reporters and photographers are murdered every month? El Diario, the newspaper in Cuidad Juarez, bloodiest city of all, recently ran an editorial that begged the local drug lords to “explain to us… what you would like us to publish or stop publishing… because the last thing we want is for another one of our colleagues to fall victim to your gunshots.”
It seems that only one person in all of Mexico is willing to report what’s really happening: the anonymous young man behind the increasingly legendary Blog del Narco, which has become the country’s de facto record of the war on drugs’ horrifying roll call of atrocities. In his own words:
“The idea to create the Blog del Narco came because the media and government in Mexico try to pretend that NOTHING IS HAPPENING, because the media are intimidated and the government has apparently been bought. So we decided to tell people what is actually happening and tell the stories exactly as they happen, without alteration or modifications of convenience…. For the scanty details that they (mass media) put on television, they get grenades thrown at them and their reporters kidnapped. We publish everything. Imagine what they could do to us.”
Fortunately for our brave narco-blogger, it’s still possible to stay anonymous on the internet. Encryption and proxy technologies allow for a bulletproof disguise. As long as he’s careful, the mysterious blogger will not be found, no matter how many millions the drug cartels throw at the problem, or how many officials they corrupt…
Until next year. That’s when the Obama administration plans to introduce legislation that will mandate “back doors” for every encryption system, allowing the US government to wiretap any and all online communications. Peer-to-peer services that have no central servers where communications can be intercepted (hello, Skype) will have to be completely scrapped and rewritten to permit American eavesdropping.
The US isn’t the only country suddenly and belatedly grappling with the “problem” of internet anonymity. Earlier this year, India and the United Arab Emirates both demanded that Research In Motion surrender the keys to all BlackBerry communications in those countries (although they have since dialled back the rhetoric). And China, needless to say, is way ahead on cracking down.
No doubt there are some best intentions behind these Orwellian demands. Terrorists used BlackBerrys during 2008’s Mumbai attacks, and the FBI obviously has genuine concerns about online terror networks. But once Big Brother’s infrastructure gets built, it’s only a question of time before someone else — the wrong someone else — comes along to use it. If you think drug cartels don’t employ cyber mercenaries, you’re probably not watching enough episodic crime dramas. And remember when hackers broke into Google’s email systems and revealed the identities of Chinese dissidents? They exploited a back door that Google had built because the US government mandated it.
No law can stuff the disruptive genie of public-key cryptography back into its bottle, or shut down open-source, peer-to-peer, freeware initiatives such as Tor or Freenet. Smart bad guys — and, hopefully, smart good guys — will use those tools to stay hidden. Meaning that this massive and hugely expensive surveillance initiative will at best catch a few incompetent bad apples, while putting literally everyone else at risk. For the maker of El Blog del Narco, it’s a stark matter of life or death. For most of the rest of us, it’s an unwelcome hug from an unfriendly Big Brother. It makes you wonder exactly what the Obama administration is smoking.