Software tools created by the U.S. State Department to encourage the free flow of information online and on mobile phone networks are not likely to be used by criminals to pursue illegal activities, according to a new RAND Corporation study.
While some technologies supported by the State Department’s efforts have the potential to be used for illicit purposes, there are numerous alternative technologies that are better suited for criminal activity, according to the report.
“There is little reported evidence that the tools created to promote human rights and the free flow of information are also used in any material way to assist illicit activities,” said Sasha Romanosky, the study’s lead author and a policy researcher at RAND, a nonprofit research organization. “However, we conclude that the tools do provide critical capabilities to human rights activities and other Internet users in nations where communications are restricted.”
RAND researchers conducted a review of technology projects supported by grants from the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor after members of the U.S. Congress expressed concern that some of the tools may be used by criminals to further the commission of illicit activities.
Some of the projects examined include proxy technologies, virtual private networks, mesh networks and anti-distributed denial of service. Information about each project supported by the bureau was collected from a combination of publicly available information, interviews with grantees and documents provided by the bureau itself.
The bureau funds the development of many cybersecurity and privacy software programs within its human rights mandate. However, researchers say there are tradeoffs associated with any investment in technology and innovation.
“Given the wealth and diversity of other privacy, security and social media tools and technologies, there exist numerous alternatives that would likely be more suitable for criminal activity, either because of a relatively reduced level of surveillance and law enforcement capabilities compared to that of the internal security regimes of authoritarian governments, fewer restrictions on their availability, or because they are custom built by criminals to suit their own needs,” said Martin Libicki, a RAND senior management scientist and an author of the report.
Support for the project was provided by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.
The report, “Internet Freedom Software and Illicit Activity: Supporting Human Rights Without Enabling Criminals,” can be found at www.rand.org. Other authors of the report are Zev Winkelman and Olesya Tkacheva.
The research was conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division. The division conducts research and analysis on defense and national security topics for the U.S. and allied defense, foreign policy, homeland security and intelligence communities, and foundations and other nongovernmental organizations that support defense and national security analysis.