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Research Questions

  1. To what extent can the Internet freedom tools funded by DRL be used for illicit purposes?
  2. Has DRL funding for Internet freedom tools increased the potential for illicit use of these technologies?
  3. What safeguards exist for Internet freedom tools to deter illicit use?

The State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL), as part of its broader effort to protect and advance political and economic freedoms and human rights, champions the United States' strategy for cyberspace to advocate for fundamental freedoms of speech and association through cyberspace; empower civil society actors, human rights activists, and journalists in their use of digital media; and encourage governments to limit neither the freedom of expression nor the free flow of information.

To this end, DRL funds the development of many cyber security and privacy software programs. However, there are trade-offs associated with any such investment. On one hand, security and privacy tools can provide safe, reliable, and anonymous Internet access to people who would otherwise be censored, filtered, or punished for communicating electronically. On the other hand, these tools could also be used to conceal or commit illegal activity. This report examines the portfolio of tools funded by DRL that help support Internet freedom and assesses the impact of these tools in promoting U.S. interests.

First, we note the benefits of these tools in promoting DRL's mission of Internet freedom across the world. Second, we examine their potential for, and examples of, their illicit use. Third, we consider the ability of comparable tools, not funded by the DRL, to be used for such purposes. And fourth, we examine safeguards and design and service models that could limit or restrict the use of the technologies for illicit purposes.

The report concludes that DRL's support for Internet freedom tools has not made them more likely to be used for illicit purposes, relative to alternative technologies not funded by DRL.

Key Findings

There is little reported evidence that the Internet freedom tools funded by DRL assist illicit activities in a material way, vis-à-vis tools that predated or were developed without DRL funding.

  • Conversely, DRL-funded tools can and do provide crucial capabilities to netizens (non-criminal users of the Internet) — specifically human rights activists — either because they are freely available, easy to use, marketed and available to human rights supporters, or because they operate in the user's native language. Further, 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 reduced surveillance and law enforcement capabilities, fewer restrictions on their availability, or because they are custom built by criminals to suit their own needs.

The development of Internet freedom tools and technologies is a worthwhile endeavor.

  • Such tools provide a material capability to netizens and human rights activists that they may otherwise not have, while criminals and others who seek to use such technologies for illicit purposes have alternatives available that offer capabilities equal or even preferable to those offered by DRL-funded tools.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Introduction

  • Chapter Two

    Why Internet Freedom Tools?

  • Chapter Three

    Internet Freedom Tools Are Countermeasures to the Efforts of Repressive Countries

  • Chapter Four

    How Could DRL Funding Affect Criminal and Netizen Behaviors?

  • Chapter Five

    Do Netizens and Criminals Seek the Same Things from Internet Freedom Tools?

  • Chapter Six

    Methodology

  • Chapter Seven

    Analysis of DRL Internet Freedom Projects

  • Chapter Eight

    Additional Mitigating Safeguards

  • Chapter Nine

    Conclusion

This research was conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD) for the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, at the request of the U.S. Congress.

This report is part of the RAND Corporation research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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