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Grandstanding on terrorism and tech

IPI Center for Technology Freedom director Bartlett Cleland cautions that zealous policymakers are ignoring the realities of technology in a rush to pass their pet tech projects into law.

One hardly has to think to know what is on everyone's mind these days--one year later, we are still somehow changed. Harder to fathom, perhaps, is exactly what the acts of war and responses have to do with technology.

In brief, the impact (of the Sept. 11 attacks) has already been great, both because of the attempts to pass unnecessary legislation and the clear need for greater use of technology by government.

One of the most interesting aspects is that, as far as has been revealed, the terrorist attacks were surprisingly low-tech. After years of fears of the Y2K bug, cyberterrorists and domestic hackers, knives and jet fuel, in this case at least, were the elements of terror. This does not, however, suggest that the nation's cybersecurity is not of the utmost importance.

In many ways, this event has demonstrated the critical need to protect our society and infrastructure, and the huge holes in that protection. This is particularly true in the area of cybersecurity. As recently as last August, the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA) gave the government and the private sector a C- grade for their cybersecurity efforts.

The government must increase its usage of technological measures in security-related areas, among others.

Take immigration, for instance. With the use of certain software and hardware applications, such as modified customer relationship management software, tracking the visa status of legal immigrants would be much easier. In fact, the terrorists living in the United States had "lapsed" visas and could have been deported well before they had the opportunity to attack our country if the government had a more high-tech--and therefore better--tracking system.

Our airport security clearly suffers from outdated, obsolete technology. Carry-on scanning machines, most nearly 30 years old, were designed to spot handguns. Threats these days are more varied and demand the use of already-available better technology. The liberties afforded us in this country come with an equally important demand for responsibility. We must use the tools at our disposal to protect our society.

Only the proliferation of high-tech products will create the tight security system we so desperately need now.
The government's lack of technology has been widely recognized by its own representatives. Keith A. Rhodes, chief technology officer of the General Accounting Office, said, "Virtually all of the largest federal agencies have significant computer security weaknesses that place critical federal operations and assets at risk to computer-based attacks." He then ominously predicted that the situation was likely to get worse. "Over 100 countries already have or are developing computer attack capabilities...NSA (the National Security Agency) has determined that potential adversaries are developing a body of knowledge about U.S. systems and methods to attack them."

But the growing realization that we need heightened technological security doesn't mean that we need new federal laws or regulations. Because of the very nature of technology, no law or regulation could have denied cyberterrorist tools to the terrorists and no law or regulation could have protected the United States against a cyberattack.

What we don't need are grandstanding or opportunistic members of Congress looking to pass pet technology policy legislation because "the environment seems right."
Only the proliferation of high-tech products will create the tight security system we so desperately need now. This is particularly true regarding encryption technology. Many of the protocols for strong cryptography are in the public domain. Dozens of programs were created overseas, beyond the control of the U.S. Congress. Moreover, strong encryption is one of the best ways to secure U.S. transactions of all sorts against those who would cause harm.

So what we don't need are grandstanding or opportunistic members of Congress looking to pass pet technology policy legislation because "the environment seems right." Legislation that was unattractive a year ago is probably still unattractive, even if some may argue that now is exactly the time to limit our technological advancement.

Much as they did on the issue of privacy, the first place that our national policymakers focused on was on individuals and corporations. As we now know, however, the greatest abuse of trust of personal confidential information has occurred at the hands of the government, through its illegitimate use of such information.

As Attorney General Ashcroft quipped last year, we have spent more time focusing on illegal gambling, including the online version, than we have on being prepared to defend ourselves against terrorists. In their zeal, many policymakers have simply ignored the very realities of technology, both its capabilities and limitations. Now is the time to remove those blinders and do what is right--not just because of the terrorist threat, but because those actions are simply right and just.