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CFP'93 - Brice

CFP'93 - INFO-ETHICS: Freedom and Privacy in the Digital Revolution

by John C. Brice

Copyright (c) 1993 John C. Brice
Licensed for use by the Association for Computing Machinery
All other rights reserved.


Universe appears to consist of at least three dualities: Matter-Energy, Space-Time, and Order-Chaos. Einstein discovered the first two dualities and we have yet to come to grips with them. Our heightened awareness of the third duality (order-chaos) is only slightly more recent, but it is important for us to consider at this time because it implies an observer, someone to perceive the rest of the universe as ordered or chaotic, and thereby opens the door to the entire subjectivity-objectivity myth which mislead mankind for millennia until Kant closed the door forever on the possibility of objectivity. All we can really know is our sense impressions. Just ask anyone working in Virtual Reality today. Einstein, with his Relativity, Heisenberg with his Uncertainty, and Schroedinger with his Branching Multiple Reality Cat reveal that not only can we never know anything about the theoretical Objective Reality, but that we each create our own Virtual Reality by imposing Order on the Chaotic flux of Information which penetrates our bio-sensors. Through the act of perception (imposing order on chaos) we continually create our own reality. Through the act of perception we create, when we are successful, information. When we are unsuccessful, we create noise. That is the taoist dance of the order-chaos duality.

But this Holy Act of Perception defines more than just our Virtual Universe, it also defines Us as Observer/Participants. Through the act of perception we also define ourselves, and so how we deal and interact with Information (which includes our perceptions of each other) and all the other dualities in our Universes, gives rise to the Ethical duality of good and evil. As we take the first steps of the Digital Revolution, we know that this revolution is taking us from an Industrial Society, dominated by the Matter-Energy duality, to an Information Society, dominated by the Order-Chaos duality (the next revolution of such profundity will be the Space-Time Revolution, but we haven't got time for that now).

How we define the acceptable parameters of our interaction with information will determine the ways in which we may create our realities. It will also determine who we are as an info-society. Like Schroedinger's Cat, an infinity of possible Universes will be forever closed to us when we open the box of Info-Ethics. But when we look inside, we will find a completely different infinity of possible Universes (and because it will be infinite, it will overlap, in some strange place, with the Universes which were lost). The half life of the Information Age is about to pass, and so it will soon be time to open the box and look inside. Since we exercise the god-like power of creation through the act of perception, we may consider now the possible futures we might like to inhabit, but we must be aware that if we determine the spin, we cannot know the velocity, and if we determine the velocity, we cannot know the spin.

If we fail to seriously consider the legal and ethical parameters of what we are embarking upon, the law will continue to churn its wheels, however slowly, and make these decisions, good or bad, for us based on the precedents set in our feudal and industrial past. If we care at all about setting the parameters on how we may access, process and distribute information, ie., reality, then we must give serious consideration to certain underlying issues. If we can come to terms with these issues before the government does, we have a better chance to determine our own futures.


These issues present themselves on several levels, which I have mapped out superficially as follows. It is expected that issues on all these levels will overlap with issues on other levels.

1 Bio-Survival Economics Ownership of information; the basis of the emerging economy.

2 Info-Power Politics Privacy and freedom of information. If reality is inherently multiple, then everything is true somewhere. What becomes of the notion of defamation when everyone can fabricate his own version of truth? Will restrictions be placed on our ability to fabricate certain realities?

Beyond simple notions of truth and falsity, the computer age makes possible strings of information, ie., viruses and worms, which are in and of themselves dangerous and potentially lethal. Words can hurt us. Where will the balance between security and freedom be struck in the digital age?

3 Artificial Intelligence and Robotics Revisited Virtual reality may be the ideal home for synthetic consciousness. What rights are we prepared to provide? When should we provide them? What impact will an intelligent, roboticised means of production have on our economy?

Education: The Hyperlearning Revolution.

4 The Net Where is information located? When is it stolen? Who owns cyberspace? In an interactive, exploratory environment, do you own your own experience? Teledildonics is a myth debunked, but pornography will not die. What responsibilities should sysops have with respect to the content of information which passes through their wires?

5 Neuro-Somatic Interfacing The ethics of consciousness engineering and alteration. Integration of neuro-somatic input and monitoring devices in virtual reality units. Brainwashing can be fun, but under whose control?


This session of The Third Conference on Computers, Freedom and Privacy is concerned with the issues which arise on levels Two and Four: freedom and privacy in the digital age. This dichotomy of freedom and privacy pivots on the central issue of trust.

There is no aspect of human interaction which does not depend on, and at some level, call into question, the fundamental issue of trust. Any relationship, or institution (as institutions are merely frameworks for human interaction), to last, must be built on a solid foundation of mutual trust. Trust is the fiber of which every relationship and every institution is woven. Freedom is the measure of that mutual trust. Law, insofar as it, at its essence, defines, delimits and restricts the actions of people and institutions, describes the boundaries of our trust in any given situation. Therefore, to the extent that trust is lacking, we make laws. Law replaces trust where trust is absent. Law, however, does not equal trust. Law is, by definition, the absence of trust.An entity is, therefore, free to the extent that that entity is not restricted. Absolute freedom implies absolute, universal, mutual trust. Laws, being an expression of the extent to which we lack trust, are the means by which we restrict the behavior of ourselves and others so as to create security. Therefore our freedom is measured in inverse proportion to the quantity of laws we enact. Freedom and security, by the same token, however, must be eternally at odds with each other. We must sacrifice freedom to the extent that we demand security. It is upon this foothold of security that law and freedom have come to appear synonymous in the civics courses taught in our schools. As we have seen, however, law and freedom are not synonymous.

In the case before us today, we are confronted with a breach of security by a computer virus which has resulted in the deaths of thirty people. We are therefore confronted fundamentally by the issues of freedom and privacy as they manifest in the computer age.


To the extent that a worm or virus is a device which employs stealth and deception to obtain access to a foreign computer system, its presence therein is by definition unwanted and nonconsensual. It is, in fact, analogous to rape. Therefore, from the point of view of the users of the infected system, there is no good which can come from such a virus or worm. Likewise, from the point of view of the worm engineer or contaminator, ie., one who releases such a device into a foreign system, the only result which can reasonably be anticipated is the loss, damage or destruction of information and computing ability. In an age in which the control of many important physical phenomena has either been entrusted to computers or the regulation of such phenomena depends to a great extent on information stored, manipulated or generated by computer, interference with these computer processes will naturally result in interference to the physical processes which they affect. Therefore, interference with such phenomena should be understood to be a natural and probable result of interference with the underlying computer systems. As interference with systems such as air traffic control, E911 service, military computers, hydroelectric dam control computers, nuclear power plant computers, and even local telephone systems, can have life-threatening consequences, it is necessary to conclude that the reasonable anticipation of such consequences must be attributed to one who introduces such a virus into a network or to any computer likely to be connected to any network, or to any diskette likely to be inserted into any computer connected to any such network.

A more difficult question is whether culpability may be assigned to those who maintain computers responsible for regulating dangerous activities and events in such a manner that they are made susceptible to such viruses or worms. In the information age, the existence of self-replicating viruses and other digital contaminants is not a matter of speculation but is rather a matter of fact. The only real question is one of time: How long will it take for existing viruses and worms to infect a given system? It is therefore incumbent on those responsible for maintaining systems which are in turn responsible for regulating, storing, computing or generating information crucial to life-threatening or life-sustaining operations to engage in responsible interconnection practices with foreign systems. It is unreasonable not to implement any security measures.

Even more problematic, however, is the responsibility of persons who maintain BBS systems or provide others with access to restricted networks. To what extent should such persons be deemed to have knowledge of the content of information which passes through their system? The greater the burden we impose on these people, the more we diminish the sanctity of e-mail systems and the overall privacy which we as a population may enjoy. Once we impose such a responsibility on Sysops, we completely eliminate all expectation of privacy. Further, what are the limits of the obligation thereby imposed on Sysops? Does such a comprehensive burden warrant the employment by Sysops of their own scanning worms which read and comprehend all information on a guest machine before allowing access to a BBS or network? In the emerging information economy, a relatively free flow of information is essential to the functioning of our society. Placing such a burden on Sysops would result in the serious impairment and compromise of the quality and freedom of the flow of information through the amorphous Net. Accordingly, the interests of privacy and the free flow of information demand that no responsibility be placed on Sysops with respect to information exchanged under any veil of privacy provided by the Sysop. However, the Sysop should be under a duty to take reasonable measures to monitor the content of information stored or exchanged through public areas of his system.

Censorship will always induce secrecy on the part of otherwise good and intelligent people. And secrecy on the part of intelligent people will always induce fear and paranoia on the part of the general public and the government. Fear and paranoia on the part of these entities will always result in a further reduction of freedom, causing more secrecy, inducing more paranoia, ad infinitum, leading to a more tightly controlled, centralized police state.

On the other hand, the best way to neutralize the threat of viruses is to openly allow them into the system in an inactive form, much as an inoculation functions. This will enhance the knowledge of all board participants, and the more we know about the ways in which viruses are constructed, the more tools we will have to prevent them from causing damage.

Toward the application of this end, information which is descriptive of potentially dangerous techniques, procedures or programs should not be censored by the Sysop, as such information may assist in the development of anti-viral technology. Furthermore, the storage of inactive viruses and worms should also be permissible for the same reasons.

Nevertheless, the knowing manufacture, and the reckless replication or storage of active viruses and worms, or the negligent activation of inactive ones, should bear criminal liability.


While we are conscious of the virtual nature of the proceedings here today, nevertheless we know that our realities are the products of our perceptions, and that our perceptions are limited by the information which they are able to access. Therefore, the character of the future realities, actual or virtual, which we may one day construct, is dependent on the relative freedom of the information at our disposal. It is unrealistic to expect absolute freedom of information, just as it is unrealistic to expect complete security. Accordingly, the liabilities we impose on acts in the digital age must take these facts into account. We must try to achieve a comfortable balance between freedom and privacy, freedom and security. What we do here today is the all-important first step of perception as we look around for the realities we'd like to see.

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