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Who's bluffing whom on cybersecurity?

CNET News.com's Charles Cooper asks whether Internet users are going to be on the losing end of a devil's bargain because of the requirements of a new--and decidedly different--world order.

Remember Omar Abdel-Rahman?

This blind Egyptian sheik convicted in the 1993 car bombing of the World Trade Center had a long affiliation with terror groups dating back to the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981. That didn't bar his entry into the United States, which granted Rahman permanent resident alien status nine years later.

Had Rahman's rap sheet been brought to the attention of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the goof-up might have been avoided. But bureaucracies change slowly. It turns out that information about the Sept. 11 hijackers was available in different federal, state and local databases.

Unfortunately, it took a massacre to move the politicians to do something meaningful about fixing the problem. The 2003 budget proposed by President Bush has some $722 million earmarked for improved information sharing in government agencies.

That's entirely proper and fitting. IT will be on the front lines of the war on terror. The country has rallied around the flag and given the government the benefit of the doubt. All the while, however, I'm watching all this with bated breath.

Mention the magic words national security and otherwise rational people get weak in the knees. But the struggle against al-Qaida will be over one day, and we're going to wake up to learn that we've given up rights that were dearly fought for.

The risk to civil liberties is as real as the danger of wasting time by doing nothing while the caveman and his henchmen regroup.

Then what?

Considering how panicky this nation can become during times of crisis--remember the Palmer Raids of the early 1920s and the internment of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War?--this isn't an idle concern.

Recall, for example, that the USA Patriot Act got signed into law in October 2001--less than one month after last year's terror attacks. This catch-all provision, which among other things reduces judicial oversight of government monitoring on the Internet, sailed through Congress because few politicians were brave enough to swim against the tide.

Times have changed, says the administration. But justifying the new authority by offering up scare scenarios about cyberterrorists triggering electronic Pearl Harbors is simply irresponsible. I'm less worried about bin Laden's gang attempting to bring down the Internet than I am about these rats finalizing their next plot via instant messages sent from rented computers at Kinko's.

Justifying the new authority by offering up scare scenarios about cyberterrorists triggering electronic Pearl Harbors is simply irresponsible.
The National Infrastructure Protection Center, which is the cybersecurity arm of the FBI, was previously charged with protecting against this sort of electronic threat. But when it came to tracking down bad-boy hackers or planning the defense of the nation's electronic infrastructure, the NIPC rarely got its man, according to a report last year from the General Accounting Office. The government is now planning to the huge Department of Homeland Security to lead this fight. Bigger is supposedly going to be better, but Uncle Sam isn't historically very good at throwing money at big projects.

Maybe things will be different this time around. Let's hope so. The risk to civil liberties is as real as the danger of wasting time by doing nothing while the caveman and his henchmen regroup. Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures, we're being told, and this is a required sacrifice.

My personal Internet privacy--and yours--was never 100 percent secure, so I'm willing to wait and see. I'm not happy about it, but our little computing corner of the universe has obviously changed. For better or for worse--and for the foreseeable future--this is the new world order.

In the meantime, send over a good book to read, because I'm not going to be sleeping very well.