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CPSR Statement on the Terrorist Attack

CPSR Statement on the Terrorist Attack

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Created before October 2004

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CPSR shares in the worldwide shock and horror in response to the September 11 terrorist attacks. As computer professionals, we are deeply saddened to see the use of technology for such destructive purposes. We hope to see technologists helping, perhaps in minor but important roles, in restoring infrastructure and preventing future attacks.

The events of the past week have left Americans from preschoolers to policy-makers confused, scared, and searching for appropriate responses. Although the desire for swift action is understandable, decisions made at this time may affect our world for years to come. As we formulate reactions to these attacks, we should consider the reasoning behind these decisions, and work to avoid simplistic responses.

The world we live in is one of advanced communications and computer technology that may seem threatening. It has only been a few days since the hijackings, but the Senate has already passed legislation increasing federal wiretap powers, and new legislation to limit the use of cryptography has been discussed.

It's certainly true that cryptography and the Internet could be used as tools for planning of terror. However, these tools serve useful, valid purposes that should be protected. On September 11, we learned the awesome destructive potential that commercial jetliners have when used as weapons, but no serious commentators have suggested banning passenger airplanes. Cryptography and email have been lifelines for oppressed peoples fearing reprisals for open communications.

Used correctly, encryption technologies might even be powerful weapons in the fight against terrorism, as concerned individuals in areas occupied by terrorists might provide valuable information via encrypted channels.

Increases in the use of Internet surveillance technologies like Carnivore and new limits of encryption are short-term actions that may have the appearance of bold action, but their value is limited and their costs may be real.

New legislation allowing the increased use of surveillance in order to track terrorists has been discussed. Protection of civil liberties requires that any such legislation should be narrow in scope and duration.

These hijackings also demonstrate the shortcomings of the National Missile Defense proposals. Space-based missile systems could not have prevented hijackers from taking over the planes. Even if an NMD system had been in place, and the planes had been tracked, it's far from clear that they could have been shot down without causing death and destruction comparable to - if not worse than - that which happened during the crashes.

This is not to say that there is no role for thoughtful use of technology in trying to prevent future terrorist actions. Improved security scanners, passenger "panic buttons" on airlines, cross-checks between passenger names and FBI "watch lists" are just few of the tools that might be implemented to increase airline security and reduce the latitude for future attacks.

Tradeoffs between liberty and security are not appropriate if the liberty lost is real and the security gained is illusory. Political, military, and business leaders should work towards solutions that will provide meaningful security while respecting civil liberties.