Americas next civil war will be fought on the Internet, and the fundamental values in question will be the right to privacy versus the need for national security.
Right now, that assertion might seem far-fetched. This is a time of flag waving and patriotic fervor that ranges from genuine statesmanship to banal jingoism. And thats as it should be. The war against terrorism is not one of those morally ambiguous geopolitical games we came to associate with the Cold War. The attacks of Sept. 11 were a manifest evil that threw our civilization and the rule of law into a fight for survival. We win or we perish.
But as the war drags on, were in for some sobering realizations. As Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld warned last week, the front line is our front yard. For the first time in any American conflict, we can expect more civilian casualties than military. As fear mounts, winning this war is going to require adjustments to our social and cultural values that would have seemed unimaginable just a few weeks ago, but now seem inevitable -- most important among them are our evolving expectations of privacy and individual rights.
The battle lines are forming rapidly.
Within days of the Sept. 11 attacks, the FBI had hundreds of pages of legislation ready for Congress -- a cornucopia of surveillance tools and investigative authority the bureau had been seeking for years and now saw an opportunity to grab.
Civil libertarians and conservatives alike resist. In Congress, concern spans the political spectrum.
Jim Harper is editor of Privacilla.org, an advocacy Web site that espouses a libertarian view of privacy. "We are on the brink of a privacy Exxon Valdez, " Harper warned. "The damage done to Americans privacy in the coming weeks could take generations to clean up."
Shari Steele is executive director of the civil liberties group Electronic Frontier Foundation. "While it is obviously of vital national importance to respond effectively to terrorism," she said, "these bills recall the McCarthy era in the power they would give the government to scrutinize the private lives of American citizens."
Signs of the battle are everywhere: Surveillance technologies have been incorporated into new antiterrorism legislation. Oracles Larry Ellison has suggested that a national ID is both desirable and inevitable. The FBI has made moves to subpoena data from ISPs and to force manufacturers of routers and switches to embed wire-tapping capabilities into their equipment.
"These are worrisome times," said Charlotte Twight, a lawyer and professor of economics at Boise State University whose writings are featured on the Cato Institutes Web site, and whose book, Dependent on D.C.: The Rise of Federal Control Over the Lives of Ordinary Americans, is due from St. Martins Press in January. She told me, "There are a lot of sweet-sounding names, like antiterrorism, being slapped on new legislation that hide suspicious provisions. The political reality that citizens are willing to draw the line at a certain point has changed dramatically since Sept. 11."
Until now, Twight said, the process of working data surveillance into the fabric of our lives has been incremental, almost invisible. In her book, for example, she describes how the Social Security Act, part of Franklin Roosevelts New Deal, created an identification number that has slowly, quietly evolved into a fulcrum for government data collection about individuals. A simple retirement insurance scheme has been transformed into a de facto national ID for all residents of the U.S.
More recent legislation, ranging from the Immigration and Naturalization Act to the 1996 Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), have sealed that trend. Today, thanks in large part to the Internet, an individuals Social Security Number is the common link among medical, education, labor and financial databases, enabling government -- and at times, prying eyes in the private sector -- to track, monitor and define us.
This flies in the face of all the Internet was supposed to represent. Only yesterday, it seems, the global network of networks was being portrayed as the technology that unleashed the individual and leveled the playing field. Instead, it is quickly becoming the technology that many now believe most imperils our individual autonomy.
This is not a direction we can afford to embrace blindly. We need to protect our borders and our identities with equal vigilance. But if Americans think they are being spied upon, by government or businesses, as they make their way about the Net, as they send e-mail to grandma, watch videos, buy personal gifts or build Web pages, we will have turned cyberspace into a police state.
In which case, we might well win a battle against terrorism only to lose the war against tyranny.