Terrorism, the Law and Research

This story caught my attention. During the trial of a Saudi computer science student at the University of Idaho a “terrorism expert” testified that the defendant had published material that helped “to recruit and encourage financial support for terrorists.” What caught my attention was that under cross-examination the terrorism expert admitted that “he published some of the same information on his own website without being prosecuted” but that his motivation for publishing the same material was “solely for the purposes of academic research into militant Islamic groups.” Aside from the fact that the end user, in this case the potential “recruit”, cares about accessing the information and not what the publishers motivations are, this raises issues about potential legal threats arising from sensitive research.

We’ve seen how changing legal environments can have chilling effects on research, particularly with vulnerability research. We’ve seen how this affects reverse engineering and censorware research. We’ve seen how attempts to gain legal cover for censorware research have failed. We have also seen how the legal environment can affect research concerning sensitive issues such as child porn. I wonder how this will affect my research, particularly on Internet censorship, but also on critical infrastructure and cyber-terrorism.

My immediate concerns are somewhat alleviated after hearing Barry Sookman‘s presentation at a recent Open Source conference. Although he was thoroughly taken to task by Eben Moglen on some finer points of the GPL, his presentation did contain some great points on the Canadian context of relevant issues including reverse engineering, fair use/dealing and intellectual property. For the most part, I feel that there is significantly lower risk doing such research in Canada, but for how long?

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