Faceless Internet carries dangers

Dispute: As the government tries to keep an eye on terrorists and other criminals, privacy advocates say anonymity has its place on the Web.

March 19, 2001|By Scott Canon | Scott Canon,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Daniel Bernstein called his idea Snuffle. A few lines of math, it aimed to give ordinary people a little more privacy and, if they wanted, a tad more anonymity on the Internet.

The federal government called it dangerous and contended that it should be treated like missile technology. The secrecy that Snuffle might afford two lovers exchanging e-mail, it suggested, could just as easily give terrorists a way to keep the good guys in the dark.

Because the Internet is as close to Paris, France, as it is to Paris, Mo., Bernstein's Snuffle was barred from export in that borderless world.

"All I was doing with [Snuffle] was giving people a way to protect themselves," said Bernstein, now a math and computer science professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago. He sued.

His case - an unresolved tangle that produced court rulings that put the government in retreat - churns on in an emerging area of civil liberties where law and technology have yet to settle into definition.

How much anonymity - with all the security and peril that implies - should the Internet offer?

The issue draws close attention from two small camps: American spy and law enforcement types watching from one corner and computer privacy crusaders watching from another.

Each studies the other with a suspicion bordering on paranoia.

Law enforcement, unceasingly tested by the ingenuity of cryptographers, worries that organized crime and terrorists will enjoy a haven in their Internet communications that they find nowhere else.

"The nation's communications networks are routinely used in the commission of serious criminal activities," the FBI said recently. "In many cases, there is no substitute for electronic surveillance."

Yet the cyberpolice have backed away from demands that encryption software, for instance, be sold only when the authorities are given keys to the codes. Instead, the government concentrates now on improving its eavesdropping savvy.

On the other side stand privacy advocates. They want to keep government from peeking at their e-mail, to keep thieves and frauds out of their bank accounts, and to wander the Internet without fear of leaving tracks. Losses in privacy wars now, they worry, could ruin Internet freedom for generations to come.

"There are lots of good reasons people would want to encrypt their communications or have some anonymity," said David Sobel of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "Think of support groups for alcoholics or battered spouses or gay teens or a government whistle-blower."

But sometimes ordinary citizens, such as physician Sam Graham, feel the painful edge of anonymity.

He had just started a urology practice in Richmond, Va., in 1999 when messages posted on a Yahoo finance message board accused him of taking kickbacks from a pathology laboratory.

"This guy had some grudge against that company, and I got hurt," Graham said.

It took about eight months to establish that the person who identified himself as "fbiinformant" actually was a Nashville pathologist. A subsequent libel trial last year ended with a $675,000 verdict.

First Amendment freedoms have long protected Americans' right to speak anonymously.

"Without that freedom - the equivalent of tacking a flier to a kiosk before dawn - some important political speech would be lost," said Robert O'Neil, director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression.

But just how plausible is anonymity on the Internet?

As plausible as you want, contends Lance Cottrell. He is president of Anonymizer.com, a company that promises people the chance to send e-mail and tour the World Wide Web incognito.

Cottrell said any tracks left by his customers lead only as far as his computers. There, he said, no records are kept. The trail turns cold.

Could someone use his service to plot a crime? "The same way they could use a phone booth, I suppose," he said. "Unless you want to live in a restricted police state, bad people will always be able to gather and talk."

Thanks to that anonymity, the struggle between law enforcement and the privacy movement can get bitter. Consider Carl Edward Johnson, outraged by the government's opposition to Bernstein's Snuffle.

He was inspired by Jim Bell's essay, "Assassination Politics," in which the like-minded Bell proposed a series of online, anonymous bounties to fund hits on government officials and anonymous, online payments to seal the deal.

"What if [citizens] could go to their computers, type in the miscreant's name, and select a dollar amount?" Bell fantasized. "[That] would make being an abusive government employee an extremely risky proposition."

Johnson is in a federal prison in Texas for threatening a federal magistrate and U.S. Treasury agents by offering money online for their deaths.

Bell, meanwhile, is in jail near Seattle awaiting trial - accused of stalking and threatening federal agents, but without a computer.

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