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Why didn’t Google catch the Norway killer?

We know the self-confessed perpetrator of the Norway killings Anders Breivik purchased six tonnes of fertiliser, a key ingredient of explosives, in recent months. We know he was under surveillance by the…

Search engines can flag up “dubious” searches on request. ssoosay

We know the self-confessed perpetrator of the Norway killings Anders Breivik purchased six tonnes of fertiliser, a key ingredient of explosives, in recent months.

We know he was under surveillance by the Norwegian Police Security Service. We know he spent an alleged 200 hours on Google searching for terms relating to bombs.

We know he emailed a copy of his 1,500 page “manifesto” to thousands of people just hours before the bombing and shooting that claimed at least 76 lives.

So why wasn’t any of this picked up and acted upon sooner?

Craig S. Wright, an expert in computer forensics, shines a light on online surveillance.

Anders Breivik is said to have spent 200 hours googling phrases such as “how to make a bomb”. How easy would it be for Google and other search engines to trace a user based on their search terms?

That would be possible, but extremely difficult. You’ve got to remember the large amounts of data a site such as Google filters every day. To then assess the reasons why people do these kind of things would be even more challenging.

Of course, there are also freedom of speech requirements to consider and potentially there are academics and other people with valid reasons for using for such search terms, and so it becomes difficult.

Also, if you are going to bust down someone’s door because they’ve done a search for bomb-making the question is: where in the world are they anyway?

Earlier in the year, I had to go to Venezuela because of online child porn being delivered out of that country. The difficulty is that Venezuela doesn’t have any extradition to the US or other countries.

I was even able to meet with some of the people behind the material, the organised crime groups, and they were quite blatant about what they’d done for the simple fact that no-one can take them out of the country and prosecute.

Do search engines have a flagging system whereby they are alerted whenever someone searches for words such as “bomb making”?

No, but they can set up this kind of system on request. The problem is that Google is a US company and most of their servers reside in the US.

If you look at the furore around the wireless network scanning issue a little while ago, any time Google starts monitoring anything, it has privacy advocates screaming at it. That’s a bit of a double-edged sword: they’re damned if they do, damned if they don’t.

On the other hand, if an organisation such as the FBI or Australian Federal Police (AFP) make a request with a court order and Google becomes protected to some extent, they can monitor and flag certain search terms. The difficulty is that they need something legally sanctioned in order to do so.

So unless an individual is already being watched by Google – at the request of a law enforcement agency – their search terms won’t be monitored?

That’s correct, and that was one of the issues with Norway. When you’ve got a person who’s being monitored by security forces in some capacity, but by no means high on the radar, then there’s no-one out there actively looking for them.

Even if they are a person of interest, unless someone’s gone to a court of law and got an operational certificate or warrant requesting online monitoring, then nothing is going to be done.

Should search engines be monitoring dubious search terms and tracing the individuals responsible?

The problem is that this course of action will drive people to alternate websites that aren’t monitored at all.

Any real activist or “hacktivist” out there wanting to find this information is even better off going to sites such as Astalavista and others that are actually tied to finding this sort of material.

Websites such as Astalavista are hosted offshore, so even if the FBI or AFP wanted to access them they generally can’t – not legally anyway.

So even if search engines did more in terms of monitoring search terms, and tracing those who make the searches, it would actually make it more difficult to catch people – that’s the paradox.

On top of that, sites such as Google are corporations that exist to make a profit. If they start having to do all of this extra work monitoring and filtering search results, then it’s going to bring in opportunities for websites that don’t do it, who have lower costs.

As a result, things move away to less secure sites.

How common would search terms such as “how to make a bomb” be?

I wouldn’t see it as being all that uncommon. Being involved with universities and uni students, I know there are people that look up such things just because they can, as their way of rebelling against the system.

The Anarchist’s Cookbook is a good example: there are so many copies of it floating around it’s not funny. People just like to say: “Hey, look, I’m rebelling against the system. I’ve got a copy!”

Whether or not those people actually do anything mentioned in the cookbook – other than blow off their own fingers – is another question, but it’s the “I own it” mentality that goes through a lot of people when they go through uni.

Are we likely to see any changes in the way search engines monitor user behaviour as a result of the Norway attacks?

I can see calls for changes being made in some European countries where the privacy requirements currently protect the user to the point they don’t allow law enforcement to get access to anything.

There may be moves towards greater monitoring, but less privacy for users.

Join the conversation

11 Comments sorted by

  1. Paul Richards

    Great point of conversation Craig.
    I might add also the footprint Google puts on all the world digital data via the internet is really very small. At this point in our timeline, it is a myth Google is large enough to sift anywhere near the entire internet, let alone compile the exponential growth in data.

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    1. Craig S Wright

      PhD; Adjunct Lecturer in Computer Science at Charles Sturt University

      In reply to Paul Richards

      I can also add to Paul’s comment that the scanning of the web is capturing less data over time. With the advent of Web 2.0, database driven sites are not being indexed to any great extent. “Robots.txt” files also limit what spiders such as Google deliver (Google being a site that respects these conventions).

      The browser type (User-Agent Strings) are fed to the web servers. Google has its own ID and web servers can easily deliver content to Google that differs from that offered to normal users…

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  2. Daryl Deal

    retired

    So, who made Google a world policeman again?

    Reality check, I believe it is, or should be common knowledge, the National Security Agency and many other US Government agencies, such as the FBI(one should also include foreign powers such as China and Russia, on that list too), are in fact using sophisticated computer technology, in order to filter all telephone conversations and key words in all emails and extremist blogs throughout this world, to seek out and locate dumb extremists and those who are mentally unstable who willing killing innocent victims for any cause they subscribe to.

    John Cleese says it best about extremists in this short youtube video:-

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HLNhPMQnWu4

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    1. Craig S Wright

      PhD; Adjunct Lecturer in Computer Science at Charles Sturt University

      In reply to Daryl Deal

      Daryl,
      You are correct that Google is not and should not be a policeman. They are a company and these are bounds that should not be merged.

      I do believe that you are far overstating the capacity of any government to monitor information. Even the NSA cannot come close to monitoring a small fraction of any type of internet traffic.

      There have been misguided attempts at this by people, but the reality is that these have been case by case installations that are installed as needed and are extremely limited in scope. Simply put, there are not enough systems at the NSA to even record all the traffic let alone to analyse it.

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  3. Bruce Baer Arnold

    Assistant Professor, School of Law at University of Canberra

    Dr Wright comments that in some "European countries ... the privacy requirements currently protect the user to the point they don’t allow law enforcement to get access to anything". I would be delighted to read what those countries are. Courts in the UK, Sweden, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands and elsewhere have been quite prepared to provide law enforcement officers with warrants that allow access to email and voice communications, and that require ISPs and telcos to assist those…

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    1. Craig S Wright

      PhD; Adjunct Lecturer in Computer Science at Charles Sturt University

      In reply to Bruce Baer Arnold

      I would say a better way to state it is that the controls imposed around the ongoing collection of data within the EU have created a situation where there is little information for law enforcement to collect in many instances.

      Logs, network traces and many other sources of data that are commonly collected in the US are simply not available in the EU. With a warrant, this can be obtained, but again the systems are often not in place to allow this in a timely manner due to the manner in which these systems have been deployed such that they do not breach local privacy requirements.

      Yes, warrants can be obtained and for information on stored media, this is a simple enough process, but the vast majority of forensic data is volatile and does not come into the hands of law enforcement as it has ceased to exist by the time a warrant has been issued.

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  4. Bruce Baer Arnold

    Assistant Professor, School of Law at University of Canberra

    It's axiomatic that law enforcement and national security agencies within liberal democratic states should act lawfully. We should be wary about confusing convenience with necessity. Are law enforcement agencies in the US worse off than their US peers? No-one's provided substantive data in support of such a claim. Enforcement officials in the EU can and do gain access to information in a way that is consistent with law and not prevented by EU privacy law.

    It's simply incorrect - and apologies for…

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    1. Paul Richards

      In reply to Bruce Baer Arnold

      Google is just one vehicle of change that serves users and can't be bent to control of a few.

      The cloud is with us to stay, it is increasingly available to every human at low cost and with good encryption. New ideas are emerging outside the google paradigm and ideas of it's control.

      In our newly emerged digital era all cultures are exposed to information, all cultures are struggling with the changes. Information overload for some, revelations for others, with many grey areas. Great care must…

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  5. Bruce Baer Arnold

    Assistant Professor, School of Law at University of Canberra

    Australian law penalises online bombmaking and suicide instructions. The reality, however, is that instructions on how to kill yourself or other people are readily available offline.

    Wondering how people kill themselves? Walk into the nearest bookshop or library and walk out with a couple of biographies or textbooks or a novel by Thomas Hardy. (People who can't read can simply watch a Bette Davis movie or look at the Daily Telegraph).

    Interested in things that go bang? Recall what your science…

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  6. Raaagh

    logged in via Twitter

    Nice art - should be credited no?

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