excerpt from my book on technology, terrorism, and
DHS, tentatively titled "Skating on Stilts." (If you want to
read the excerpts in a more coherent fashion, try the categories on the
right labeled "Excerpts from the book." I'm afraid I can't fix the bug
in TypePad that prevents me from putting them in the category in
reverse-chronological order, but I have started putting chapters up in
pdf form from time to time.) Comments and factual quibbles
are welcome, either in the comments section or by email:
[email protected]. If you're dying to order the book, send
mail to the same address.
It’s remarkable when you think about it. Right now, this minute, agents of an authoritarian government are covertly turning on cameras and microphones in homes and offices all across America, spying on the unsuspecting and the innocent. They’re recording our every thought, our every keystroke, as we prepare private documents or visit websites.
And they’re able to do that today thanks to the hard work of privacy advocates.
How did the privacy community end up facilitating surveillance and espionage on an unprecedented scale? History, mainly, and a lack of imagination.
The men and women who built the computer industry grew up in a very different era from those who pioneered the air travel industry. Air travel enthusiasts first launched commercial flights between the two world wars, when government was big and military risks were on everyone’s mind. The pioneers were children of their age. They foresaw a world in which air travel was used for military and espionage purposes; they understood that unregulated flights could lead to disaster as the skies filled up. To manage those risks, they helped the government fashion a comprehensive regulatory scheme for pilots, airlines, and airplanes.
Computer technology, in contrast, was born in the wake of World War II, at a time when the challenge of totalitarianism was on everyone’s mind. The men and women who built the earliest computers were children of a different era. They most feared that their machines would be misused by authoritarian governments. Unlike an earlier generation of technologists, they struggled to limit government’s role in their industry. And they succeeded. From electronic intercepts to information processing practices, for the next forty years, laws on information technology were aimed as much at regulating the government as at regulating the industry.
By the time the threat of widespread computer misuse finally arrived, the privacy groups already had a narrative fixed in their mind. They could not imagine any threat to computer users’ privacy that could be worse than the one they saw in the United States government. Saying no to the government was their default position.