The Internet and Security

By Darby Patterson
Government Technology Magazine

Before September 11, Americans with Internet access might have assumed that surfing the Web was an international, 21st century right. However, as it became clear that the Internet could also used as a terrorist tool—for example, some terrorist organizations have their own Web sites—policy makers are questioning this assumption.

Many nations have been quite aggressive about encouraging online access with unlimited boundaries. Others, like Singapore, Russia, Cuba, Iran and China, support the use of technology but have strict guidelines about what kind of content may be posted. Surveillance of Web sites is a fact of online life in these nations. In much of the Arab world, content that conflicts with cultural and religious teachings is prohibited.

In the wake of the September attacks, there may also be renewed calls for surveillance of Internet communications in the US. Previously, advocates of a free and open Web raised a warning alarm when it was suggested that eavesdropping or tracking of messages might enhance global security. It is likely these voices could be drowned out by the call for heightened vigilance amid a new sense of danger.

It is not an exaggeration to say that, prior to Sept. 11, we were in the nascent years of a peaceful revolution that promised deep changes in our global culture. That peace has been shattered. How will the vast benefits of information technology be balanced with the potential evils it makes possible? Can resources in education, health, medicine, government, commerce and science remain fully open and available to the worldwide audience?

In the aftermath of the attacks we learned how important technology has become in daily life. Cell phone calls from in-flight victims shed light on the horrible event; New York City posted an emergency Web site; United Airlines pulled its site and posted disaster information. The Internet became a resource for information, communication and comfort, as scores of new sites were devoted to personal messages about the tragedy. E-mails sailed around the country as friends let friends know they were safe.

At the same time, commentators pointed out that Bin Laden and his people had access to that same technology. Terrorists monitor broadcasts, infiltrate security and communicate using sophisticated codes. Extremists who hide in remote areas are no longer remote — technology delivers as easily to a bunker as to a big city.

Almost as immediate as shock and outrage, was the pronouncement that this breech of our open society should not alter the freedoms we’ve come to take for granted. To allow an extremist act to close the doors would be to betray our history and principles — principles that are admired around the world.

Clearly, there are societies and nations that do not welcome Western ideals of individualism, democracy, equal rights and free speech. Access to the World Wide Web means exposure to these, and other concepts that that are not uniformly shared.

For example, in Saudi Arabia, where most women are forbidden to drive or work with men, the Web has become an economic tool. They are able to do research, establish home-based businesses and communicate while remaining within the strict guidelines of religious and political laws. Internet commerce is very popular in the country and, once its potential was understood, women flocked to the Web for opportunities that had not previously been available to them. Experts estimate that three-fourths of Internet users in Saudi Arabia are women. Of course, the country has strict censoring of Web content, according to its own standards about what is, and is not, appropriate.

Popularly known as the “most wired state in the Arab world,” the United Arab Emirate’s policy on Internet content demonstrates how subjective ideas about information can be. The UAE believes that restricting access to the World Wide Web is a benefit to its people, not censorship. Preventing exposure to certain ideas and images, UAE officials claim, will preserve morality and protect people. In a letter to Leonard Sussman, writing for a Freedom House survey, the Qatari ambassador to the U.N. wrote, “… Prohibition, in this respect, therefore, is not deprivation but enrichment; not suppression, but discipline, and not limitation but expansion.”

Singapore, a world technology leader, also moved to make some Internet sites off-limits to users. Officials identified sites having pornography and hate language that could create public discord or criminal activity. The government directed some Internet service providers to block Web sites with “alt.sex” in the title. Providers must be licensed and agree to guidelines regarding political speech, remarks about religion and something vaguely described as “contents which propagate permissiveness or promiscuity.” Certain types of satire are also forbidden.

Once again, society must consider basic questions that have been entertained since the great Greek philosophers first chronicled their thoughts on individual rights and freedom.

However, the nature of the quest has changed dramatically. It is no longer an intellectual exercise but a practical one that could have life and death consequences in the Information Age.

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