Issue 226, October 1, 2001  

September 11, 2001

By Stephen Lawton

On Dec. 7, 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt described the attack on Pearl Harbor as "a day that will live in infamy." So too is Sept. 1, 1939, the day Hitler invaded Poland and effectively started World War II. Nov. 22, 1963 - the day President Kennedy was assassinated. Add Sept. 11, 2001 to the list of infamous days of the past century.
     Today's attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. crystallize one of the arguments that has been raging in Congress and throughout America about the government's funding of the military: What kind of potential terrorist attack could occur within our national borders? In recent years, we've spent billions anticipating a high-tech attack; President Bush recently said he wants to spend billions more on the Star Wars defense system.
      These attacks underscore that not all weapons of mass destruction are biological or nuclear, delivered by high-tech means. We learned that sometimes a weapon of mass destruction can be something so commonplace that you might not even recognize the threat when you see it. Today it was a commercial airplane; tomorrow it might well be a tanker delivering petrol to your local gas station or the truck carrying propane to the hardware store.
     I fear that the fallout of today's events will be the loss of personal liberties first outlined by our Founding Fathers. The most vulnerable of these liberties is personal privacy. Here, the cure could be worse than the disease.
     Debates have raged for years concerning the collection and dissemination of personal information. In California, several such bills are working their way through the state legislature and politicians are jockeying for position to negotiate the final details with the governor.
     But whether or not a Web site wants to place a cookie on your computer seems a little trite today.
     Instead, what we have to put into perspective is what personal information should be collected, how it's collected, who can access it and what can they do with it once they have it. In a nutshell, I'm concerned about the use of encryption for personal and business use and the collection of personal information in some type of national database.
     The knee-jerk reaction here is that all communications should be subject to government review - there is no personal privacy. A law that allows the government to access personal and business communications recently passed in the United Kingdom. The law requires encryption software developers to provide a "back door" for local, state and federal agencies; I expect a similar law to be introduced in Congress.
      But understand, terrorists don't follow the law. Sure, we might catch some ne'er-do-wells, but the truly evil people, those with absolutely no concern for human life, including their own, will not be stopped by such a law. If individuals and companies are unable to send secure - encrypted - communications over data lines, be it the Internet or a private network, it will be a victory for the enemies of free enterprise and free thought.
     We must resist the forces that say that the only way to be secure is to create a police state, even temporarily. Once again I recall the sage words of Benjamin Franklin, who said in 1784: "They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."

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