net.wars:The land of the increasingly insecure

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 04 April 2003

The Computers, Freedom, and Privacy conference isn't exactly where I discovered the nexus of issues that make up net.wars, but it's the place where they came together for me as a related set, as opposed to a bunch of unrelated stuff I was interested in. It's good for that: the cross-disciplinary mix makes it inevitable that you will make new connections between ideas.

Wendy M Grossman

This is my tenth year attending this conference, and it's noticeable how the makeup has changed over the years. It began as a 1991 effort to get hackers and law enforcement talking to each other for the first time. As I understand it, the conferences since have never had the sheer crackle of that first one where the essential character of the conference (as codified by Bruce Koball, the most tireless annual contributor to these events) was defined: blood on the carpets.

Since then we've lived through the crypto years, when the conference seemed choked with libertarians wanting to replace the current banking system with anonymous digital currency; the lawyer years; and the privacy years. A lot of this is because the chair of CFP has immense latitude to construct the conference any way s/he wants. This year's chair, Barry Steinhardt, formerly of the EFF and currently of the ACLU, is putting the "freedom" back in CFP.

It's a fine ambition, although we seem to have lost the computers. No matter; doubtless they will be back soon.

Blood wasn't spilled on the carpets until about 2:15pm on the first day, when Heather MacDonald, defending Total Information Awareness, called us all Luddites for not being thrilled by the capabilities of this new technology. She would, she said emotionally, be happy for her daughter to answer a few questions if it meant she wouldn't be blown up at her college.

So Patrick Ball, who does statistics and relational databases for a living in human rights work, challenged her with some numbers. We are, he said forcibly, talking about hundreds of millions of suspects and a few dozen terrorists. Even the tiniest error rate, he pointed out, means hundreds of thousands of false positives and therefore investigations. As retired ACLU head Ira Glasser said yesterday, "Nobody is made safer when you arrest the wrong person." (This does not, of course, worry the Department of Justice, which announced this week that records contained in its National Crime Information Center database do not have to be accurate.)

That hasn't made the litany of new initiatives less depressing: passenger profiling anti-terrorism laws that target all of us, surveillance cameras, total information awareness, PATRIOT-II, data retention. Some of the conference attendees couldn't make it because they were refused visas; others declined to try. Here in orange alert New York, they've got clumps of gun-accessorized men in camouflage military gear searching for an appropriate desert all over Penn Station, the hotel is demanding photo ID, and bags are scanned and searched on the way into the Empire State Building.

Kinda like Belfast used to be, at the height of the IRA campaigns, except that the searching hasn't spread to ordinary stores and the city centre isn't cordoned off. Do you feel safer now?

Probably most people don't. I don't know a lot of people who feel safer when they walk past a clump of five guys carrying guns, even if all those guys are doing is saying, "Use the pedestrian crossing to get across there." (That happened to me in San Francisco last week; didn't they have something more important to police?)

Things are no better when you look at the non-government side. In one panel, we were reminded that free speech and open access to the Internet depends heavily on its architecture. But the conversion from dial-up to broadband is putting the Internet much more into the control of the large cable and telephone companies than before – and the cable companies want content-based routing that will let them control distribution just like TV.

Then there's the nightmare future of RFID chips, which campaigner Katherine Albrecht believes will turn the world into an all-tracking, all-surveilling global network.

Manufacturers, she says, love the idea of a future in which they can follow their products post-sale. With Total Information Awareness, the government, too, can know that your sweater spent an evening in jail after a protest march.

The bright spots are, inevitably, the awards ceremonies – the EFF Pioneer Awards and the Big Brother Awards. Not because they're awards, nor because Privacy International executive director Simon Davies dressed up as the Queen, but because they serve as reminders that ordinary people can and do fight back against these menaces to civil liberties.

In that sense, the conference itself is heartening even though this year everyone's bringing bad news: there's hardly anyone here who isn't an activist in some way, from the guy selling T-shirts claiming his Fourth Amendment right not to be unreasonably searched, to Stephanie Perrin, who fought for years to get Canada's privacy law passed, to Katherine Albrecht, who founded CASPIAN to oppose surveillance by customer relationship management. If these initiatives are made less onerous, it will be at least in part because of them.

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).