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Home / News

Two Edged Sword

2003-11-19 23:02:32

'A Two-Edged Sword' Technology experts are looking for ways to keep the Web safe from terrorists. But setting political limits on information could have a high social cost.

Full text of the article click here

Oct. 28 - Just how secure is the Internet? Robert Latham, director of the Program on Information Technology and International Cooperation at the Social Science Research Council-an independent, non-government group thatresearches social issues-began looking more closely at this question after the terror attacks of September 11. The result of his investigation is "Bombs and Bandwidth" (New Press, 2003,) a book that studies the emerging relationship between information technology and security.

The book, edited by Latham and published last month, includes contributions from a wide range of scholars exploring the expanding nature of IT-related threats. Latham's focus is not just how technology could be used to perpetrate terror, but also how security crackdowns on the free flow of data could undermine social development around the world-without really combating the battle against terror. He spoke with NEWSWEEK's Eric Pape about risk assessment, the costs of a war on information and the future of information flows.

NEWSWEEK: What are the potential costs of limiting information in the name of security?

Robert Latham: One cost will be innovation. Security could constrain clear innovations in applications, software, networking and the social sphere in both the developed or developing world. We are alking about the free exchange of publishing, documents and information, and peer-to-peer sharing of data and text.

Right now the agenda of security is very powerful, and it is to some degree displacing the agenda of social development in countries with high degrees of poverty and great infrastructure needs. It decreases the possibility of exchanging ideas between different sides in a conflict. It undermines the promotion of economic and social change that can help alleviate poverty-and the connection between violence and poverty is very powerful. Losing access to communication can leave groups more isolated and unable to hear other sides.

Can you give some examples?

In Burundi, there was some potential for forming trust because there was an intermediary force, Burundinet [a newsgroup established in 1993, immediately after the onset of ethnic violence between Hutu and Tutsi factions] that people could use to communicate without fear of being killed.

[Also,] the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan used the Internet back during the time of the Taliban rule to expose violence against women and the conditions in the country to a wider world they were cut off from. During the war and after, they continued to provide perspective on what was happening. People learned a lot more about situations and conditions in the country, and it helped in educating the people who are now helping to shape policy.

International organizations and humanitarian organizations often need protection from the governments they work near. They need to be secure. But at the same time, they want openness so that they can send out information on calls for action or analysis. It is a two edged sword.

How can information empower people while weakening dangerous governments or extreme elements?

Politicians who incite hatred can be mitigated by others on the ground. People mobilizing against the Iraq war were an example of less powerful actors making connections across boundaries and wide spaces, and that sort of thing can inspire hope. It is similar in Africa or on policies that people don't like regarding trade, human rights or others. All of these actors need to become more self conscious about their strategic use of technology. If we leave it to states or software developers, the sides we don't like may be the only ones to use the technology.

Typically the bad sides have more resources and rigid, closed brittle information systems will always play toward people with better resources.

If people had something to contest what was being broadcast around Rwanda, things might have been different. Radio [a powerful force in advocating the 1994 genocide] is a one-to-many form of communication. If others had a voice, more people might have been able to get away or combat the hatred. It opens up options, and that is the critical thing. The more people with a voice the better.

What did you learn from putting together "Bombs and Bandwidth?"

The basic tension between openness and a closed protected system is a theme that runs through the book. What also came out is that it is impossible to have a total surveillance society. Homeland Security, if it is trying to achieve a total information awareness, is by its very definition doomed to failure. Information and people are constantly changing. The systems you build in can only follow what is happening. Who is a good guy, who is a bad guy? The answers change. Software and categories of data are only as good as yesterday's analysis. The World Trade Center attacks make us think of airplanes used as missiles. The next time, it will be something else.

Is it possible that the security cure might be worse than the
insecurity disease?

We end up creating the nightmare we seek to avoid: a feeling of terror and paranoia as people open emails or look at documents that may be seen as unpatriotic, like the recent tape, allegedly from Osama bin Laden, distributed by Al Jazeera. The Arabic translation of that document was very limited and the media only reported small portions of it. Some people feared that they would be disseminating information for Bin Laden [if they passed it on], although other people are sharing information from the tape.

It is reminiscent of the Cold War when people were told to search out the Communist under every bed. It leads us to the question: Will the web sites that people are surfing or the information that people are sharing among themselves later be used against them?

Do you think U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft understands what the Internet means to our lives, financially, socially, and professionally?

I think he has a good understanding of it as a commercial medium, which it may become exclusively, like radio. But this raises a fundamental question about whether a free society can have a free exchange of information and a robust public sphere-and that is not something I have seen in Ashcroft's agenda.

Also, anyone who looks even briefly at the history of the Internet understands that the way that it is used now is not a good predictor of how it will be used in the future. There are two sides to that: It could be reduced to a place to buy things from large corporations in a very closed way, or it could be a free sphere of information exchange in which people can search out whatever interests them.

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