The Wrong Way To Monitor Internet Cafes for Terrorists

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Feb. 2 2012 7:35 PM

The Wrong Way To Monitor Internet Cafes for Terrorists

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - APRIL 9: A customer at the Canvas Cafe.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

If you’ve ever cared about privacy while using the Internet in public, you might be a terrorist. At least that’s the message from the FBI and Justice Department’s Communities Against Terrorism initiative. The project created flyers to help employees at several types of businesses—including military surplus stores, financial institutions, and even tattoo shops—recognize “warning signs” of terrorism or extremism. An admirable goal, perhaps, but the execution is flawed—particularly for the flyers intended to help suss out terrorists using Internet cafes.

The flyers haven’t been publicly available online, but Public Intelligence, a project promoting the right to access information, collected 25 documents that it found elsewhere on the Web. As Public Intelligence puts it, “Do you like online privacy? You may be a terrorist.”


You see, a terrorist using an Internet cafes would be “overly concerned about privacy,” for one. He might keep someone from peering over his shoulder, or maybe he’d conceal his IP address with a service like Tor.

The message this sends is that anyone trying to protect their online privacy is probably doing something bad. (Other ridiculous red flags include downloading a map of local transit or looking at photos of populated areas.)

Tor responded to the flyer with a tweet saying, “We’ve been called torrorists before, but seriously, this?” It also prompted followers to design a shirt saying “I am a torrorist” that would go up for sale online. (And for anyone wondering how Tor is used for legitimate, non-terrorist purposes, here’s a detailed list.)

Many of the actions listed should reasonably arouse suspicion, like downloading how-to guides for explosives or purchasing certain chemicals. But others are perfectly logical activities (except, by default, traveling an “illogical distance to use Internet Café”)—even good habits, given how lax many of us are about Internet privacy. The flyer itself points this out, saying each individual activity is legal and there may be an innocent explanation for what appears to be suspicious. But focusing so heavily on activities as common and sensitive as trying to keep the guy at the next computer from looking at your email serves no real purpose.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Adam Sneed is a researcher for Future Tense at the New America Foundation. Follow him on Twitter at @atsneed.


The World

The Budget Disaster that Sabotaged the WHO’s Response to Ebola

Are the Attacks in Canada a Sign of ISIS on the Rise in the West?

PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer

Is It Offensive When Kids Use Bad Words for Good Causes?

Fascinating Maps Based on Reddit, Craigslist, and OkCupid Data


The Real Secret of Serial

What reporter Sarah Koenig actually believes.


The Actual World

“Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.

In Praise of 13th Grade: Why a Fifth Year of High School Is a Great Idea

Can Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu Pull Off One More Louisiana Miracle?

  News & Politics
Oct. 23 2014 3:55 PM Panda Sluggers Democrats are in trouble. Time to bash China.
Business Insider
Oct. 23 2014 2:36 PM Take a Rare Peek Inside the Massive Data Centers That Power Google
Oct. 23 2014 5:08 PM Why Is an Obscure 1968 Documentary in the Opening Credits of Transparent?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 23 2014 11:33 AM Watch Little Princesses Curse for the Feminist Cause
  Slate Plus
Oct. 23 2014 11:28 AM Slate’s Working Podcast: Episode 2 Transcript Read what David Plotz asked Dr. Meri Kolbrener about her workday.
Brow Beat
Oct. 23 2014 5:08 PM What Happens When You Serve McDonald’s to Food Snobs and Tell Them It’s Organic
Oct. 23 2014 4:36 PM Vampire Porn Mindgeek is a cautionary tale of consolidating production and distribution in a single, monopolistic owner.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 23 2014 7:30 AM Our Solar System and Galaxy … Seen by an Astronaut
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.