Freedom and security form a strange rhyme in democracy. However, rather than going into the passionate debate surrounding the law on the control of Internet, I would rather examine the matter of the effectiveness of these measures designed to prevent future terrorist attacks.
A fair warning: those of you who are convinced that suicide commandos make selfies to generate likes on their fan page before blowing themselves up may be disappointed after reading this article.
To look for a byte in an stack of LOL cats
In the early 90s, the Internet is still a small network of computers scattered through the globe. All data contained in the Web was then limited to text and images, that could easily fit in a small corner of your current computer.
By comparison, the amount of data that travels over the Internet has now become gigantic. The overall IP traffic projected for 2018 is 108 petabytes.
If you are among the old-fashioned people that still read books and don’t know what a petabyte is, know that it is the equivalent of:
- 70 million times the Encyclopaedia Britannica (which is 30,000 pages)
- About one fifth of all the words that were spoken by all humans since the beginning of history
- 5 billion video LOL cats (lasting 3 minutes on average)
The NSA, which is the most important data monitoring organization in the world, has about 40,000 employees, and it is estimated that there are about one million people in the United States whose jobs are more or less directly related to the control the Internet. Yet this incredible control device is never enough, and each year it is necessary to expand it with more human and technological resources.
But if even the United States do not have enough resources to monitor all the data circulating on the web, how France could achieve it?
The algorithms have no sense of humor
Pretending to identify relevant information is already absurd, but it is even more meaningless when it comes to people trying to hide the information they want to convey.
A simple technique to hide the real meaning of a content is to use lexical substitution. Assume that terrorists are preparing an attack and they need to coordinate: rather than using direct words, they will use their equivalent in a different context. For example:
|Military Glossary||Farming Glossary|
With this technique, the phrase “You shall bear ammunition for machine guns while I will implant the bomb in the parking lot” will become “You shall bear the seeds for the spade planting while I would take care of the watermelon in the garden.” An outside observer will see in a ongoing bombing operation a innocent organic farming project.
Better than agriculture, this technique is even more efficient by using, for example, the lexical field of the universe of Game of Thrones: the series is so commented on the Internet (and has so much violence) that no one will suspect the discussion that you have with friends on whether Joffrey Baratheon deserved better to die poisoned or gutted hides a terrorist objective…
There is nothing easier for humans to encode information in this way, while the semantic analysis algorithms are unable to detect contextual transposition, humor or irony.
Some say there is a real world beyond the digital
Finally, if there is one thing that the 11/9 terrorist attacks should have demonstrated, is that the vision of an Internet which is the exact mirror of reality is a joke.
The fact that a group of terrorists have managed to achieve one of the most monstrous attack of history without any other technology of some cutters should have demonstrated the failure of a purely digital vision of intelligence.
There is a blind spot in this approach, which is reality itself. If a group of terrorists meet in a coffee shop to plan an attack using only oral and written communication, there is no way that even the most advanced surveillance technologies can catch them.
Moreover, terrorists know since long that networks are monitored and they use the Internet as a means of distraction, multiplying Facebook pages that are only a means of disinformation hiding their real plans.
It seems clear that the response to the terrorist threat today is not to denounce the Web as a source of danger that should be controlled, but to come back to the basics of what should be intelligence, namely a field activity that relies on psychology, intelligence analysis and infiltration.
Moreover, it is striking that terrorist acts are now caused by young French who grew up and lived in France and who have decided to turn against their own country. The real concern of governments should be to rally around the values of the Republic and treat the social qualm that pushes more and more people towards violence.
The establishment of a digital police state is a first step towards a solid police state, and if the effectiveness of this law will be very limited, it will have a very real effect on the evolution of France towards the creation of a “collective fright effect”, which will be the subject of my next article: The democracy of fear.