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'Net Insider:

Not for the 4th

By Scott Bradner
Network World, 07/16/01            

I couldn't write this column last week - I just couldn't bring myself to write about the voiding of many of our liberties in a week that included the celebration of the first steps toward those same liberties.

Aside from an occasional course correction (such as the Supreme Court's recent decision that the use of thermal scanning devices to look through walls violated constitutionally guaranteed rights), there has been an unrelenting drumbeat of attacks on the fundamental human rights of people in modern society.

The worst of these attacks are taking place in Europe, but many in U.S. law enforcement seem to be looking longingly at what is going on there. For example, there is a proposal on the table that would require all European ISPs to save up to seven years of their customers' e-mail on the off chance that the police might want to have a look. Europe is not alone in this. Face-recognition software tied to TV cameras now watches people attending U.S. ball games.

Technology has made these attacks possible. Without the enabling technology, guards at airport checkpoints would have to strip-search every traveler to get the same view of their private parts that a new type of X-ray machine now under test gives them. It is only very fast computers and the digitization of everything that lets a proposal such as the European data storage idea be theoretically possible.

Many of these attacks are ones that would have been dismissed instantly as way over any threshold of reasonableness without the technology that makes their operation invisible to the people who are affected. People would quickly rebel if the post office cut open and copied every letter they handled or if everyone going to the ball game had to stop to get mug shots taken.

But just because these attacks are invisible does not make them any less attacks. In the name of safety, law enforcement or national security, governments all over the world are turning people into well-observed laboratory rats.

It could be argued that we would have a safer world if the police were not constrained by the notion that individuals have some rights. I will disregard for the moment that police are also people and have sometimes proven to be fallible. I'm not all that sure that there would be much human about people in such a world.

The U.S. Bill of Rights may be a local ordinance on the Internet, but there was a lot of history that made it necessary to write it down. Modern governments seem to have forgotten that history. Or maybe they have just forgotten that humans exist.

Disclaimer: Harvard long predates the Bill of Rights and trains lawyers to defend (and attack) it, but the above rant is mine.

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