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A new kind of Security

Security is often thought of in terms of the protection of documents from prying eyes. As so often, Internet can turn things on their heads. The Internet was founded upon the need to provide a computer network which was resilient to the point that it would not be shut down, even if physically attacked at several points. This led in turn to a famous Internet nostrum (John Gilmore) 'The Net treats censorship as damage and routes around it.' In other words, security on Internet can mean the security of the freedom to communicate.

In the summer of 2000, a group of students (again) described and proposed a system to which they gave the name “Publius” The name reflects the intended purpose. Publius is intended to allow the irreversible publication of information anonymously. At its simplest, the system uses a mixture of encryption technologies to take a file, and to scatter it in many repeated, and encrypted, forms over servers on the net. Nobody who owns a file server on which a Publius document or fragment of a document exists, will be able to know what it is they hold. Thus, if approached by a law enforcement officer, the owner of the computer can, entirely properly, say that he has no way of knowing the content of the files on their computer.

Furthermore, by ensuring that copies of the files are held at many locations on the net, deletion of any file from one server will leave the file available elsewhere.

There is thus recreated that indestructibility, which was first designed into the Internet.

Publius documents can be recovered through what will come to be known as Publius servers. The prime intention of the system is to create documents which are opened, which once published, can not be withdrawn. Thus in principal anybody should be able to access any one of the many intended Publius servers, and as long as one Publius server continues to exist, all documents published I this way should continue to be available. The idea is fascinating. When the technology is combined with the use of amanamising web sites, it allows the anonymous publication of indestructable public documents. The proposed system remains at the moment (October 2000) a proposal only. Some steps have been taken to develop the software and the server support, but as yet there is no up and running system known to us.

If implemented, the system will have important implications for governments who wish to respect privacy and fee speech, but not absolutely. How can such a government prevent the dissemination of for example hate texts or pornography and so forth. It should noted that the system will not assist those people who live in countries who have so far maintained an independent view resisting the freedoms of the Internet. Countries such as China come to mind. If a government is prepared to draw a ring of electronic steel around its telecommunications borders, they will still be able to control the receipt of information on such systems to some extent. They will do so however at the expense of isolating themselves more and more from what we believe to be a fundamental revolution in human behaviour.

The system has further interesting possibilities. One, for example, will be that the system can be used to store data. If an additional level of encryption is applied so that an encrypted file is saved to the Publius system, the file can be recovered by anybody, but will be legible only to the person with the key. If therefore the Publius system does in fact deliver what it promises namely indestructible and irreversible storage, then it may well be it becomes in practice a system for online but off site storage of data. A company who is prepared to trust the encryption it uses, they will find that the apparent lack of privacy of the Publius system comes in fact to be a guarantee of security.

If the Publius system is implemented, it creates other threats. It would not be too long for example before somebody decided to publish the files for perhaps Microsoft Office in this way. Microsoft Office, or the latest music CDs. In such cases, how would the lawyers set out to prevent further distribution? They would have to shut down each and every Publius server on earth. Closing down a large majority of such servers might, for technical reasons, make an unpredictable and unidentifiable small number of files irrecoverable, but there is no hope of closing virtually every such server, as large numbers of files would remain entirely recoverable. Would a court order the close down of such a server? As the law presently stands, it should not. There are clearly significant lawful and human rights uses for such a server, and no court could know that any particular server contained the unlawfully distributed information. To close down any series of servers would be likely to cause financial damage to proper interests, without guaranteeing the interests of any person whose rights had been infringed.

With the development of data storage sites internationally which are quite outside legal regulation, such systems may prove to be indestructible. It seems to me that the way in fact in which such systems would come to grief is that there would be no particular reasons for anybody to carry the Publius material commercially, and if it became a magnet for huge quantities of commercial data, running a Publius server could prove to become an expensive and unrewarding exercise. I suppose however that because access to information in the Publius database would have to be through a Publius server, advertising on the Publius server might prove lucrative.

An interesting, but hypothetical, question will be whether the operator of a Publius server could be liable in English law in defamation. Material of a defamatory nature will of course be published through Publius. However, much that is published will be perfectly lawful and proper. The Publius operator will have no idea or knowledge of whether any file requested through his gateway is defamatory or not. Even if told about it, what can be done? He has no way of knowing whether the matter or any part of it is actually held on his computer, I would anticipate that he would be a publisher (at least in the limited sense described in Godfrey v Demon), but it is not at all clear how he could respond to a 'take down' request. See

  • The Publius Site
  • ZDNet demonstrating one possible application of the proposal.
  • Scientific American (April 2000?)
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Copyright and Database Rights: David Swarbrick 2012
18 October 2013 355 18 October 2013