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Personal, Not Private

I’d call it chilling, but others may have even stronger words for a recent proposal which could reduce the moderate level of privacy currently enjoyed by American computer users (along with American phone users). The Department of Justice has proposed legislation that would require telephone companies to engineer their equipment in a way that would facilitate wiretaps. This proposal apparently comes in response to the increasing difficulty of tapping phones that use digital networks over fiber optic lines.

MacWEEK quoted Scott Charney, a computer crime specialist at the Department of Justice, as saying that the wiretapping proposal wasn’t as dramatic as one might think because the nation was faced with requiring phones to allow taps or with condoning the use of phone by criminals. My incredulity upon reading that statement cannot be expressed in print and certainly not in 7-bit ASCII text.

What do you mean we have to condone the use of phones by criminals?!?! We most certainly do have to condone the use of phones by criminals or anyone else who wants to use them. What we do not have to condone is crime. That’s like saying we cannot condone the transmission of sound waves through the earth’s atmosphere by criminals. The government could stop or eavesdrop on normal conversation too, but somehow I doubt the general public would be terribly pleased about having every moment of conversation monitored for signs of criminal activity. And here we thought that George Orwell’s vision of eight years ago was fading with the demolition of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Of course, one future concern with such a technology requirement placed on the telephone companies is that everything passing in and out of a computer modem could be easily and automatically monitored for signs of criminal activity. And heck, once the government is monitoring for criminal activity, why not start scanning for other immoral bits of information like dirty pictures (after all, many of them are in violation of copyright law, which would be an excellent excuse for the government to monitor them) or discussions of the legalization of marijuana (I saw a post on that today in Usenet, so any monitoring of my phone line would have lumped me with drug dealers, another excellent excuse to keep monitoring my phone. Guess I’d better not run for political office.).

One side effect of building such features into phone systems is that technologically-advanced criminals could in all likelihood circumvent safeguards placed on the phone systems and utilize phone taps for criminal or at least unethical purposes. Confidential business data would be no safer than personal conversations or even official government communications. Somehow I doubt the government as a whole wishes to open itself up to such abuses merely so the Department of Justice can more easily eavesdrop on potentially criminal conversations.

Despite my position as a publisher of free information, I understand the needs for certain limitations on free speech. Oliver Wendell Holmes’s quote in Schenk vs. United States in 1919 still applies today. "The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in [knowingly] falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic." However, I think many abuses of free speech should be self-policing, so normal people with great ideas in the field of new computer viruses should realize the potential detrimental impact on society if they exercise their right to free speech. Free speech is not and should not be absolute, but any limitations on it should be very carefully considered, both in terms of practical application and future precedent.

The government has yet to show that it understands the current electronic world and its culture enough to police that world in an informed manner. Until the government acquires that knowledge, it will continue to act and sound like Big Brother to people who wish that they had no siblings. In addition, the law enforcement community must recognize that fighting crime, though an extremely important governmental function, cannot and should not rise above societal concerns with privacy, just as it cannot and should not rise above societal concerns with basic human rights. We cannot afford to allow easily-tappable phone systems just as we cannot afford to allow unauthorized search and seizures or the use of torture to extract confessions.

Information from:
MacWEEK — 23-Mar-92, Vol. 6, #12, pg. 4

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