Cybersecurity on the agenda in The Hague

Cybersecurity on the agenda in The Hague

The Nordic countries have cooperated closely on societal security for several decades. In recent years, this tradition has been supplemented by several political initiatives across national borders. In 2016, it was allocated funding to four projects under the Nordic Societal Security Programme’s call for proposals on society, integrity and cyber-security. Recently, they met in The Hague to exchange experiences and lessons learned so far.

The call had a broad international focus and was issued in collaboration between NordForsk, the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) (one of the UK’s seven research councils).  In total, the four projects received EUR 4.2 million.

“We are very happy for having joint forces with the Netherlands and the UK in a research area such as cybersecurity, as it obviously makes sense to cooperate across national borders as there are no digital borders. We face many of the same challenges when it comes to cyber crime, but also the societal impact and impacts of the research is of common relevance to our countries”, said Ane Marte Rasmussen, Chair of the Programme Committee for the Nordic Societal Security Programme.

"Throughout the day we received very good presentations of interesting and relevant projects on cybersecurity and important social values. Only two years after the start-up, the projects can already show interesting research findings about the population's attitudes to online surveillance, tensions between privacy and crime fighting, and linking sensitive data for better health services. The Programme Committee looks forward to further development within and between the projects. This will make important contributions to the development of knowledge in the field of societal security, and at the same time contribute with relevant knowledge to policy-making," Rasmussen stated. 

Police Detectives on the TOR-network

The ability to remain anonymous can be a matter of life and death for those involved in a fight for democracy. But it can also serve as a tool for criminals, who use the “darknet” for their activities. The NordForsk project “Police Detectives on the TOR-network” compares the everyday reality of law enforcement operations with both the forensic requirements for an investigation and the legal requirements for obtaining information properly in accordance with the statutory framework.

TOR is short for “The Onion Router”, an information-exchange protocol which prevents the tracking of users who send or receive data. Tor's intended use is to protect the personal privacy of its users, as well as their freedom and ability to conduct confidential communication by keeping their Internet activities from being monitored. TOR’s own website stresses the positive aspects of being able to exchange information anonymously. Journalists can receive information from whistle-blowers and companies may use TOR when handling sensitive contract negotiations. However, the downside is that the infrastructure can also be used for criminal purposes. Anonymity provides a cover for the distribution of child pornography, the sale of illicit drugs or activities for organising terrorist attacks.

The way in which information is compiled by the Police is also important for forensic, ethical and legal reasons.

“It is critical to maintain the integrity of the legal process throughout. The retrieval of information must both be in accordance with human rights and adhere to strict scientific principles,” says Professor Oliver Popov, who heads the research project’s Swedish contingent.

“The general rule is that law enforcement agencies in one country are not allowed to gather evidence from another country without that country’s consent,” says Professor Wouter Stol, a former policeman who now lectures in cybersecurity at the Open University in the Netherlands and is project leader for the overall project.

“In the Netherlands, the police work according to the general principle that as long as a server’s location is uncertain the investigation may continue,” he adds. “As soon as it is determined that a server is located outside the Netherlands, the police halt the investigation until such consent can be obtained. If the server is hosted in a country the Dutch police are not able to cooperate with, the entire investigation will come to a close.”

Finding the balance between the needs for anonymity and privacy on the one side with the need for effective law enforcement on the other is not going to get any easier. Professor Angela Sasse, the former Director of the UK Research Institute in Science of Cyber Security (RISCS), said the following to NordForsk Magazine in 2016:

"It has not been proven that the key to a more secure society lies in mass surveillance. It’s an illusion that if you have more data then you can find everything or everyone. You don’t make the needle easier to find by making the haystack bigger."

“I think that all leading security researchers agree that there isn’t a trade-off between security and privacy. The ability to have privacy is an essential part of a free society, even if law enforcement agencies or other government segments believe more surveillance makes their work easier. I don’t think anyone really wants total surveillance and government control,” said Professor Sasse.

“From a scientific point of view, it has not been proven that more surveillance yields a 100 per cent secure society, so supporters of surveillance should be very careful about making that very promise.”

Read more about the four projects:

Taking surveillance apart?: Accountability and Legitimacy of Internet Surveillance and Expanded Investigatory Powers

Enablement besides Constraints: Human security and a Cyber Multi-disciplinary framework in the European High North (ECoHuCy)

Governance of Health Data in Cyberspace

• Police Detectives on the TOR-network (A Study on Tensions Between Privacy and Crime Fighting)

Read more about the Nordic Societal Security Programme

Text: Tor Martin Nilsen and Björn Lindahl

Photo: Tor Martin Nilsen

Photo of Angela Sasse: Terje Heiestad

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