US takes high-tech tack

What happens to new US laws on monitoring email and surfing, once everyone has calmed down after the recent terrorist attacks? Will the authorities continue to trawl through email and chat rooms looking for terrorists who, quite frankly, were never there to begin with?

I imagine by the time you read this you'll be heartily sick of hearing about the World Trade Center bombings and the implications of it, yet it's hard to think of anything else worth writing about at the moment so I'm going to add my voice to the hue and cry.

The US seems hell-bent on adopting a high-tech solution to a low-tech problem. Four planes were apparently hijacked by men using knives. None of the major intelligence networks knew anything about the planning or implementation phases of this diabolical mission and rather than adjust their way of thinking about the world they have instead been granted sweeping powers to intercept email and telephone communications right across the US and, by default, New Zealand as well. Any communications that passes through the US will be subject to interception by the FBI without any need for a warrant.

The Combatting Terrorism Act of 2001 will, according to Wired magazine, give US authorities the right to look at your surfing habits, see who you are emailing and receiving email from -- although, bizarrely, not read its contents -- for a 48-hour period without needing a judge's consent. This kind of power is only available during certain situations, but that includes any time there is an "immediate threat to the national security interests" of the US or an attack on the "integrity or availability of a protected computer". So the next time there's a DoS attack ("look, here's one now") on a system, this power kicks in and they're away.

It doesn't stop there, however. Various senators have called for strong encryption to be outlawed or at least restricted further (it's already classed as a munition and as such anyone who transports an encrypted package over a border is guilty of arms trafficking if the encryption is greater than 128-bit) and any tendency toward limiting the FBI's Carnivore digital "sniffer" system will have been abruptly squashed by the pro-revenge feeling in the US.

These are still only early days -- as I write it's less than a week since those awful pictures were beamed around the world -- and I'm sure everyone will calm down in the near future and behave more rationally. I really hope so. What I want to know is what happens to these laws then? Will they still be enforceable? Will the authorities continue to trawl through email and chat rooms looking for terrorists who, quite frankly, were never there to begin with?

And what does that all mean for New Zealand companies doing business and potentially competing against US companies? Is it paranoid of me to wonder at the US's seeming ability to consider its corporations as strategic assets and, as the French government is alleging, use information gathered from the Echelon network to help Boeing secure a contract over Airbus?

With New Zealand playing a role in Echelon and the new emphasis being placed on our intelligence gathering role in partnership with the US, will our government be increasing its intelligence gathering capabilities? What will that mean for those of us trying to conduct online business? Our government has already indicated it will be spending more on our intelligence apparatus in lieu of sending troops as our part of this anti-terrorist operation and it seems to be a neat solution to the problem of our anti-nuclear stance, but I can't help but be concerned by it all. Mind you, that's pretty much par for the course this week.

One of the better things to come out of the week's events has to have been the way the online media responded to the challenge of constant, minute-by-minute updates. Better even than the online coverage was the flow of personal experiences. Slashdot, one of my favourite websites, slowly filled its front page with stories from individuals caught up in the events as they unfolded -- some were simple tales of survival while others were rage-fuelled rants. To me they were as valuable as the images on television and far more telling than any of the talking heads burbling away as they interviewed each other.

Perhaps we've just witnessed the birth of a new form of journalism or rather a new version of the oldest form -- "I was there" reporting -- for the immediate age.

Brislen is IDGNet’s reporter. Send email to Paul Brislen. Send letters for publication in Computerworld to Computerworld Letters.

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