Since Sept. 11, discussion has swirled around whether Americans have sacrificed too many rights to shore up national security. As I see it, much of the debate around this question started out on the wrong foot, the same foot on which the Luddites tried to stand.
The debate has focused on which types of surveillance technology should or shouldn't be allowed for arresting terrorists. The proper question is: How are these devices going to be used, and how closely are those who use them held accountable?
Consider a new and little-known law-enforcement tool, Magic Lantern. It is one of the latest government solutions to a pesky problem posed by software programmers in the 1990s who developed a high-power encryption software with such success that even the National Security Agency couldn't decode it. Initially, the government tried to prevent the encryption software from being sold overseas (where it would be readily available to terrorists).
However, Silicon Valley companies argued that if the US did not to sell it, someone else would. Civil libertarians maintained that unbreakable encryption is essential to protecting cyberspace from government intrusion. Others argued that the threats from terrorism are greatly overstated. As a result, top-of-the-line encryption was made available to one and all.
In response, the government first developed the Key Logger System, which, once installed on a computer, captures the password for the encryption software as the user types it in. But it required breaking into a suspect's home to install the device. Magic Lantern accomplishes the same thing remotely, by sending the program to a suspect's computer like a virus. But now many civil libertarians are crying "foul," seeing Magic Lantern as one more threat to privacy.
It is wrong to look at Magic Lantern and similar security devices as good or evil. As with all technologies, the proper question is how it will be used. For instance, if evidence about a suspected terrorist is presented to a court of law, Magic Lantern should be allowed to decode the suspect's messages. But if it is installed at the discretion of every cop on the beat, the rights of many innocent people could be violated.