Privacy the new victim of war

If truth is the first casualty of war, privacy is surely going to be the first casualty of this war on terrorism, says a senior IT academic.

If truth is the first casualty of war, privacy is surely going to be the first casualty of this war on terrorism, says a senior IT academic.

Giving up freedom in the name of safety is absurd, says Hank Wolfe, a senior lecturer in information science at the University of Otago.

"That just means the bad guys have won."

Wolfe, who has been in the IT security field for more than 30 years, says the hysteria following the World Trade Centre terrorist attack is allowing governments to push an agenda that gives them more power and control and violates the basic principle of "innocent till proven guilty".

"Allowing the FBI or other agencies the right to look into your financial records or your phone records without a warrant just isn't right. They have to get a warrant and to do that they have to prove there's a reasonable case for it. They can't just do it because they live next door to someone who hasn't mown their lawn for a while." Wolfe compares the current "war on terrorism" with the "war on drugs" fought in the 1990s.

"Don't get me wrong, I'm opposed to illegal drugs. I don't use them. But the war on drugs was unwinnable and we should have seen that from the war on alcohol in the 1930s. All we've done is make the drug dealers rich and build an empire within [US] government called the Drug Enforcement Agency that has broad and sweeping powers to seize property and freeze assets that goes far beyond what was expected."

Wolfe says businesses should be concerned because if you trade with a suspected drug-dealer you could end up being tarred with the same brush. This is something that will start to happen with "known terrorists" as well. "The new terrorism czar will have all kinds of powers and authorities and will simply become another behemoth of government. There are lessons to be learned here and I fear we're not learning them."

Wolfe's current field of focus is computer forensics, an area he says is growing daily. "It's an important field that not a lot of people talk about. I've been working in it for two or three years and the police don't say a lot for obvious reasons and the vendors all talk about their products in particular. I don't do either and that's the way I like it." Wolfe has been called in on both police cases and civil cases to assist in the retrieval of information from computer storage media. As he sees it, his job isn't for either the prosecution or defence, but is to uncover data.

"I was called in on a civil suit by both sides' lawyers to look at a man's PC. His wife said he'd hidden money and the evidence was on the PC. He said he hadn't and it wasn't. I simply looked at the disk and told the lawyers what was on it." Maintaining the chain of evidence is key with forensics in general but is often difficult with electronic crime.

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