Technology as a Tool—For Good

By eweek  |  Posted 2001-10-01

People want to stand together in the face of adversity, but they also want a focus for their anger: if not someone, then something, to blame. In our technology-centered society, our tools can easily become convenient scapegoats.

When the open, international network, or the mathematics of strong encryption, are used—or even suspected of having been used—for malicious purposes, the cry goes up that we must accept inconvenience or higher costs if it denies these facilities to those who would do us ill. Such costs, however, are real, while the resulting denial may hurt us more than it hurts our enemies—especially if the only effect is to remove U.S. technology providers from a market while overseas competitors continue to sell. Our abortive experience with a restrictive U.S. crypto policy should not be quickly forgotten.

But Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) has resurrected the discredited notion of mandating "backdoor" access to encrypted communications. Major Internet service providers acknowledge FBI pressure to grant it access to users e-mail streams. Wireless communications and electronic payment systems find themselves in the cross hairs of the presidents sweeping Mobilization Against Terrorism Act. Past experience, sad to say, has shown that such initiatives can introduce unintended loopholes; they certainly involve the creation of new potential points of failure, both technical and institutional.

Its hard enough to design something that works all the time; its much harder to design something that has intentional seams or openings while limiting precisely the scope and exploitation of those deliberately introduced flaws.

Meanwhile, the focus on the network as a source of strategic intelligence can distort the definition of agencies success. If government surveillance merely keeps up with the growth of network traffic, then the gross measurable output of intelligence collectors may grow at an impressive rate—but will the actual value of that output also keep pace?

Our agencies must search for our enemies where they are, not look for them in places—such as the Net—that are merely easy to explore.

We need to honor the initiative and courage of the passengers on United Flight 93, who were able to find out what was happening in New York and Washington in time to prevent their aircraft from becoming another missile.

Consider this: If all in-flight telephone use had been blocked by technical means, instead of merely by routine flight-crew instructions, how many more on the ground would have died on that dreadful Tuesday? The civic role of IT, in good times or bad, is to give people better information while preserving or even expanding their freedom to take extraordinary action in extraordinary situations.

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