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Tensions in a privacy purist

By Scott Bradner
Network World, 10/01/01            

Regular readers of this column will know that I have been worried about the ease with which governments can erode expectations and realities of individuals' privacy on the Internet. I have written about these threats for many years. Suddenly it's not so easy to be a privacy purist, but that doesn't make it any less important.

It is widely said that the first casualty of war is the truth, but the individual is not far behind. I don't see any specific evidence of the erosion of truth, but proposals by the Bush administration and by well-meaning representatives and senators are, at their base, attempts to subvert individual rights in the name of fighting terrorism. The people who propose these attacks seem to think individual rights are inconvenient in times of national threat - and they're right.

It would be one thing if all of the proposals would make thwarting and catching terrorists easier, but all too many of them are repackaged ideas that have been rejected by Congress over many years and are entirely orthogonal to the terrorist threat. Some are clearly logical and should be adopted, such as the idea that it is an individual that is being wiretapped and not just a piece of hardware.

Proposals to require "back doors" in encryption programs is an example of something less logical. The use of back-door-free encryption cannot actually be prevented, no matter how much someone might want to do so. The algorithms are too well-known, and there is too much existing software. Monitoring communications links to try to catch people would not be effective because anyone serious could encrypt already encrypted data, using an approved system for the last encryption. The authorities wouldn't know that this was happening until they got a warrant to wiretap the communications, and then the only thing they could do is charge the individuals with illegal use of encryption, like charging Al Capone with tax evasion.

I'm not alone in my worries about going too far. Groups ranging from the National Rifle Association to the American Civil Liberties Union have expressed concerns. We just need to remember that those inconvenient rights are what makes this country different from many others. To destroy them to save the country would be a hollow victory.

Disclaimer: Even within Harvard opinion is split on this topic; the above is my take.

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