All Commentary
Monday, November 1, 1999

Big Brother Wants to Read Your E-mail

A System That Can Track Anyone Can Track Everyone

Some people concerned about privacy violations on the Internet object that many Web site operators collect and use information about visitors for demographic research and, yes, advertising. Although “anonymizer” services are available, the simplest way to preserve one’s privacy from such operators is simply to refrain from visiting their sites. After all, no one forces you to buy books and CDs online. If you want anonymity, go to a store and pay cash.

A more serious and unavoidable matter is the government’s newest scheme for invading everyone’s online privacy. In late July, the Clinton administration unveiled a new plan to use the FBI to monitor all Internet traffic, both on military and nonmilitary networks, under the guise of protecting the nation from terrorists who might use the Net for nefarious purposes. According to a draft of the plan, a sophisticated monitoring system would be put in place to constantly track all computer activity, looking for “suspicious patterns.” This would help keep tabs on the activities of the usual suspects: drug traffickers, child molesters, and terrorists.

Of course, while that sounds like a reasonable precaution, the potential for abuse is both grave and apparent. The government could monitor political dissidents as easily as it could monitor actual criminals. Any system that enables the authorities to track anyone enables them to track everyone. All electronic commerce and banking, all Web visits, and all e-mail communication would be potentially available for surveillance. This would include the retrieval of passwords for remote log-in. The director of the plan, Jeffrey Hunker of the National Security Council, claims he will make an effort to protect privacy rights. It is not unreasonable to wonder if this is actually a real priority for him.

Two Threats

There are two distinct threats to individual liberties here. First, with this powerful surveillance tool, government’s snooping power would grow astronomically. Unlike with wiretaps, Big Brother wouldn’t even need a court order to check up on anyone it wanted to investigate. Second, besides government abuse, we would have to worry about the tool being used by others who could illicitly get access to the information either through bribery or hacking.

Predictably, the government claims that it is not interested in eavesdropping, but only searching for patterns that might indicate illegal activity. But what does that mean? You can get support for pretty much anything if you invoke the specter of child molesters or drug dealers or terrorists. But when the authorities have the power to track child porn, they have the power to track anything. It’s a very short step to their reading our mail, investigating our medical records, and tracking commercial and financial transactions. Of course, their answer to concerns of this sort is that if you are not doing anything illegal, you have nothing to worry about. But this is wrongheaded for two reasons.

First, they are the ones who decide what is illegal. Right now, dealing in heroin is illegal. It wasn’t that long ago that beer was illegal also. It is well within the realm of the possible that they might decide that e-mail about libertarianism is illegal. After all, in the government’s eyes, anyone writing angry messages about Waco might be the next Tim McVeigh.

Second, the very notion that only criminals should be worried about surveillance is contrary to the spirit of the Bill of Rights and the presumption of innocence. Why even bother with search warrants? If you have nothing to hide, you shouldn’t object to the police looking around. That is the attitude of oppressive regimes everywhere, but should not be the guiding principle of law enforcement in a free society. We have the right to be secure in our persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches. This surely includes our e-mail messages and Web activity. This new plan is a dangerous threat to individual liberty and should not be taken lightly, nor dismissed as hacker paranoia. This affects nearly all of us now.

Aeon Skoble is a visiting professor of philosophy at West Point. The views expressed here are his own.]

  • Aeon J. Skoble is Professor of Philosophy at Bridgewater State University.