PFIR - People For Internet Responsibility
PFIR Statement on
Terrorism, Civil Liberties, and the Internet

September 23, 2001

PFIR Home Page

In the wake of the horrendous attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11th, both politicians and the media have been effusive in using the word "war" to describe the resulting state of affairs. CNN's tagline--"America's New War"--has been present almost continuously on-air, sandwiched of course between commercials for herbal sexual enhancement supplements and other product promotions.

That "war" would be the term of choice rising from the grief, anger, and frustration of that grim Tuesday was perhaps inevitable, but unfortunately misleading as well. Unlike the previous centuries' World Wars, or even undeclared wars like Korea or Vietnam, the battles with terrorism will be very different indeed. The "war on terrorism" is much akin to the "war on drugs" (there's still lots of illicit drug use), the "war on crime" (we see plenty of crime to go around), and the "war on poverty" (hungry people still abound). Achieving justice for those killed and a safer world for the future is not really a war, but will rather be the continuation of a permanent, complex, and expensive process. This process is unfortunately difficult to explain or demonstrate in comparison to quick battles and push-button bombings, particularly when calls for revenge (the dark and dangerous stepchild of justice) are so rampant.

The war drums also bring forth some of the very troubling aspects of humanity as well. Calls for a "holy war" are echoing widely in the Islamic world, as the conception spreads that a war against terrorists could actually end up being a war against Islam or Muslim cultures in general. Even if we assume such an assumption to be totally unfounded, its power and impact is vast.

In the West, innocent persons have been attacked and killed merely for wearing Muslim accoutrements, and passengers have been forcibly removed from planes preparing for takeoff simply because the other passengers "weren't comfortable" with them being on board. Hate crimes are rising rapidly--mostly against persons who just don't "look right" in the eyes of those around them. A Middle-Eastern appearance? Looking at your watch too often? Speaking an Arabic language? All of these now seem to be grounds for unreasoning hatred and panic.

Such reactions may perhaps be fueled by comments like those made by a U.S. Congressman in a September 17th radio interview, during which he spoke disparagingly about anyone wearing "a diaper on his head and a fan belt wrapped around the diaper." In one fell swoop he managed to deprecate a vast population and its religious practices. Are we seeing the rise of the same reasoning that led to the imprisonment of American citizens after Pearl Harbor, for the simple reason that their heritage was Japanese?

Calls for quick action against suspected enemies during "wartime" are of course expected, but history demonstrates that the numerous knee-jerk reactions during such periods are often misguided and counterproductive. In reality there are two battles going on right now. The first is a necessary fight against terrorism. The second is a "war" against civil liberties, using the recent attacks as an excuse to begin the wholesale gutting of exactly those aspects of American society that we most desperately need to protect.

A look at just a sampling of the comprehensive and permanent police powers now being requested by the U.S. government is instructive:

  • Essentially unlimited detention without charge or trial for immigrants--including legal immigrants, based even on suspicion--no real evidence need be shown

  • Loosening the rules of evidence--even permitting the use of evidence obtained through human rights violations in other countries (in practice that could mean evidence obtained through torture in many parts of the world)

  • A wide range of new surveillance authorities are requested, including new wiretapping provisions for telephones and voicemail, and an array of new powers relating to the Internet. Some of the latter involve expansions of "no court order required" Internet (e.g. "Carnivore") monitoring, including e-mail headers (To, From, Subject, etc.) and the URLs accessed by Web users. Such URL tracking provides the capability for generating an extremely detailed record of users' Web browsing and other related activities--sites and pages visited, keywords entered to search engines, and in some cases other input data as well.

And there's lots more... What's especially interesting when you dig down into the details of the proposals, which the administration wants on the ultimate of fast tracks, is how many of the requested items actually have little or nothing to do with real terrorism. The term "terrorism" is being used so loosely that the proposed provisions could apparently be applied to a bored 13-year-old who defaces a Web site, or to a non-violent anti-war protester at a rally being closed down by the authorities as an "illegal assembly." While both of these individuals may have violated laws, are they terrorists? Of course not.

What we really see in the new proposals is a "grab bag" long in the making. It's a law enforcement "wish list" (many items of which have been soundly rejected in the past) that far predates the attacks on September 11th, now being rammed through the legislative process as quickly as possible during a time of high emotion. This in and of itself does not necessarily invalidate everything on that list. We may as a society determine that some of the less controversial (that is, less liberty-damaging) suggestions have a degree of merit, to be subjected to due consideration, modification, and if passed into law suitable court review as required.

But the wholesale "we gotta have all of this right now" argument falls flat on its face, especially given that many of the provisions would have vast and permanent civil-liberties implications, yet seemingly not actually protect us from terrorism. It's important to keep in mind that all of the concerns that existed prior to September 11th about the potential abuse of such powers are still valid today. In fact, in such an emotionally-charged atmosphere, those concerns may be more valid than ever before.

We're told that the proposed police powers expansions are but the beginning of such proposals, and indeed there have already been calls for additional measures of equal or even greater concern. Billionaire Oracle Chairman and CEO Larry Ellison has apparently joined the "nuts to privacy" fraternity-- he's now calling for a national, computerized ID card complete with thumbprint, which would enable easy tracking of everyone's movements. This could be especially handy for some future, less-enlightened government when it comes to rounding up those pesky voters or protesters who don't agree with your policies, or others on a future version of something like Richard Nixon's "enemies list." Ellison has even offered to make the software for such an ID system available for free! Gee, thanks a whole bunch Larry--we'll be getting back to you...

There have also been the inevitable "The Internet is the root of all evil" proponents, echoing down from history the concerns of benign rulers and tyrants alike who just knew that if we could somehow keep people from communicating with each other privately, the world would be a much safer and more stable place. Much attention for now has focused on encryption, with calls to ban those forms of strong encryption that cannot be monitored by the government (or also, we might note, by sufficiently industrious criminals, hackers, or even terrorists who would crack into the mandated "back doors" of such weakened systems).

Let's ignore for the moment the lack of evidence suggesting that encryption played a significant role in the events of September 11th. Let's also ignore for now the effective capability to completely hide even the mere existence of encrypted messages within photos or other media using "steganographic" techniques. An irrefutable fact still emerges--it is impossible to put the genie of encryption back into its bottle.

The techniques for strong encryption are now widely known and can be implemented on any PC or handheld computer. Attempts to outlaw, weaken, or mandate surveillance "back-doors" for such systems can only result in the vast honest population being saddled with vulnerable encryption systems for commerce and a wide range of other communications both on and off the Internet, all subject to a wide array of monitoring. Such surveillance could be instigated not only by "benign" governments, but also by a range of private parties who would inevitably penetrate the back-doors of such systems, not to mention other governments and entities (either now or in the future) who most decidedly won't be benign in nature.

The hands of mankind are soaked with the blood of millennia. Untold millions have died from a complex and interacting panorama of crime, weaponry, wars, poverty, and yes, terrorism in all its forms. Our success as a species in meting out justice for those stilled voices, as opposed to retribution or revenge, has been limited at best. Now, as we approach the challenge of charting a course for the future, with the stink of burning flesh and jet fuel still overwhelming our hearts and minds, we find ourselves again faced with the old choices.

In our clearly righteous quest to demand justice for the victims of terrorism, we do not necessarily have to repeat the mistakes of the past. The battle against terrorism will indeed sometimes be bloody, and sometimes largely invisible. It will be a process, not an event--a state of mind, not really a war. Part of that process will involve an awareness that terrorism is the result of both attitudes and situations that are not always obvious, often are difficult to understand, and usually not subject to simple "solutions" of any sort. The most difficult task facing us is to achieve our goals in this battle without destroying the better parts of ourselves in the process. We have our work cut out for us.

If we choose to adopt attitudes like "they didn't care about killing women and children, so we'll do the same back to them," then in the name of accepting "collateral damage" we'll have excised a significant chunk of our humanity and handed it to the terrorists as a trophy. If we allow our civil liberties to erode in the name of expedience and an illusionary veneer of security, we'll be denigrating those very aspects of our society that are among the most precious concepts we fight to protect, not only for today but for untold future generations as well. Such paths may appeal to both our anger and fear, but choosing them condemns us to nothing but Pyrrhic victories, for we will gradually become that which we despise, and terrorism will have triumphed after all.

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Lauren Weinstein or
Co-Founder, PFIR - People For Internet Responsibility -
Co-Founder, Fact Squad -
Moderator, PRIVACY Forum -
Member, ACM Committee on Computers and Public Policy

Peter G. Neumann or or
Co-Founder, PFIR - People For Internet Responsibility -
Co-Founder, Fact Squad -
Moderator, RISKS Forum -
Chairman, ACM Committee on Computers and Public Policy