Computer age isn't all black and white

Issues: Technology has created problems involving security and privacy that society must tackle.

October 04, 1999|By Dan Gillmore | Dan Gillmore,Knight Ridder/Tribune

One and zero. On and off. Black and white. Yes and no.

Those are binary values, and they form the technological heart of the Digital Age. Computers are digital devices, manipulating zeros and ones at breathtaking speeds. Communication of all kinds is becoming digital, too.

Our lives, meanwhile, are filled with analog nuance. Life is more about infinite grays than binary certainties.

But the very nature of the Digital Age increasingly forces us to pick one side or the other -- a troubling set of Hobson's choices. On such matters as privacy, security, free speech, money and property, we will soon have to make yes-or-no decisions where we've found a middle ground in the past.

In each case we have to recognize that the choices involve negative consequences whichever way we go. Here are several examples:

Nowhere is the choice more stark, or the consequences more clear, than encryption, the scrambling of information to keep it away from prying eyes and ears. Yet people on both sides of the debate have tended to use mushy language that implies the nonexistent possibility of compromise.

Encryption defies a middle ground for a simple reason. If your encryption is strong enough -- and cheap personal computers give you the power to make it strong enough -- all the supercomputers in the world can't decipher your messages quickly enough to help anyone who wants to spy on you. In order for you to have security in your messages, bad people also will have some level of security as they plan and conceal bad acts.

For law enforcement to be able to crack open bad people's messages, it'll need one of these conditions to be true: 1) We'll all have to store our encryption keys, which we use to unscramble our private messages, with third parties; 2) we'll have to give our keys to the government on demand; or 3) strong encryption will be banned outright.

The first condition is inherently unsafe, because it would attract criminals to the key-storage systems like bees to blossoms, or would invite government abuse. The second would repeal the Fifth Amendment ban against self-incrimination and is essentially unworkable in any event. The third is the most probable, I still believe, despite government claims that there's no intention to move this way -- and it could leave everyone's personal affairs an open book as we move into the Information Age.

We can't have this one both ways. So the next time you hear someone talk about preserving a "balance" between privacy and the needs of law enforcement, you'll be listening to someone who's either misinformed or lying.

The same principle applies to surveillance in general. Technology is disrupting the old balance. The digital environment gives law enforcement, businesses and criminals all kinds of new ways to watch what we say, read and do.

Example: If you go to a mall and browse through stores, occasionally buying something with cash, what you looked at or what you bought is essentially your business. Do the same thing on the Web, and every move you make is observed and logged. Once logged, it's too often fair game for third parties.

New tools are coming along that help you maintain anonymity online. You can bet there will be a full-scale battle over the right to be anonymous -- with governments and business interests insisting that anonymity is too dangerous to allow.

Then there's the contentious issue of what children can see on the Internet, especially pornography, gratuitous violence and other content potentially harmful to kids. Again, many combatants are talking past each other.

Minors have always been able to get hold of porn, but they had a harder time doing it before the Internet came along. Web-filtering software makes the hunt more difficult, but not impossible, for any motivated teen-ager who wants to find soft- or even hard-core material.

The U.S. Supreme Court has settled the issue on one level: It ruled that Internet speech is more like print than broadcast -- that is, entitled to full First Amendment protections, at least in the United States. The value of untrammeled speech is presumed to be higher than any risks it creates.

But the argument isn't going to go away. Governments of various kinds will keep finding ways to chip away at free speech in the name of protecting kids. No arguments, however, will change this fundamental fact: If you want to make the Internet entirely appropriate -- whatever that means -- for children, it will be appropriate only for children.

The companies that publish various kinds of content -- print, video, databases -- see the Internet and information technology as the biggest threat in years.

The cost of making a copy of digital content has dropped to near zero, and each copy is just as good as the original.

For that reason, content providers are pushing furiously toward a system in which consumers of information will pay each time they use it. They're also trying to change the copyright laws in ways that would, in effect, allow the copyrighting of facts -- a massive and outrageous power grab.

But those who oppose content providers' moves can't deny that digital technology punches huge holes in the old system.

It does threaten our traditional methods of rewarding original work and bringing new knowledge and ideas into the public domain. Again, we'll have to choose -- and the choice will be painful no matter what.

Those are only a few of the ways technology is changing the rules.

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