Privacy vs. terrorism

Like most civilized citizens of the world, my condolences go out to those more personally affected by the attacks in New York and Washington DC.

We now begin a tricky dance deciding the actions we will take to thwart terrorist plans before they come to fruition. Many have thoughtfully pointed out the mistakes we made during WWII when we crossed the line, particularly the internment of innocent US citizens whose grandparents happened to have come from Japan. We don't want to make similar mistakes in our treatment of US citizens who happen to be Muslims, or come from a Middle Eastern heritage.

One of the more subtle points is the things we might give up to combat terrorism, particularly personal privacy on the Internet. People will naturally look for easy answers to the problems posed by these recent terrorist attacks, and many will blame the Internet. This is a new technology and people tend to be scared of new technology. But complete surrender of our rights to surveillance technologies is not the solution to terrorism.

I particularly liked this post in an online forum:

From: Kevin-Neil Klop, ZDID #8606773
Posted at:08:22 GMT on:09/13/2001
Msg# 15702So, some questions about this. How far do we allow the eavesdropping to go?

For example, If I state in some email to someone, "I could get away with claiming more deductions than I'm entitled to", will that be shared with the IRS? What if that's part of an ongoing story between two people? What about a discussion between two people discussing the plight of some undocumented aliens in this country. Will that trigger a raid on their computer equipment by the INS? Where _is_ the solid dividing line now going to be set? I thought it had already been set by the constitution but, apparently, I was wrong.

There are several problems facing us. The first is a decision to be made – are we going to try and eliminate all risk in this world. If so, I recall the words of Benjamin Franklin who said words to the effect that he who would give up a little bit of liberty to ensure security deserves neither.

One can take the position that the framers of the Constitution had no way of accounting for some of the problems what we find ourselves facing. Note, however, that they were quite aware of analogous problems in their own time, having been subversives and rebels themselves. Why did they not empower the government to search anything it wished to?

The answer is because they believed that to be wrong, despite the damage it could cause. That was tested again in the civil war. Once again there was motivation to suspend some of the constitution and empower the government to do various things – such as open the mail.

The problem with the surveillance technologies being discussed is not that they are surveillance technologies, but that they are of indiscriminate use. You do not need these technologies to tap a single person's email address – a simple change to a sendmail or router configuration will do that given a court order.

We can never make the world "safe". We can make it dubiously "safer", but then another method will be found to get around that "safeguard". I would remind people that there are security measures in the airports to catch weapons. They didn't work. In fact, airports ROUTINELY fail to pick up bombs and other such paraphernalia in routine spot-checks. One might look at Boston's Logan airport's record of passing and/or failing security checks. I do not mean to single them out – other airports are just as bad.

Think carefully what you ask for. I admit that the barbarians are at, or even slightly inside, the gates. However, look carefully else the barbarian may turn out to be once a member of our very own Praetorian Guard.

Oh, and as to the use of cell phones in the car, it ranks seventh as a cause of accidents according to the AAA AND the Department of Transportation's own reports. Number 2 is tuning the radio. How about we make a law about tuning the car radio before we get around to blaming the cell phones.


(Who, BTW, hereby gives explicit permission to the government to listen in to my emails and who also uses a hands-free set and voice-speed dialing if driving the car.)

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