Big Browser is Watching
by Wendy McElroy

The most dangerous place in the world to stand is between an idealist and her dream. Janet Reno's ideal is federal power and she has a dream. It is called LawNet -- a new online and around-the-clock law enforcement agency that crosses state and international borders to enforce warrants and subpoenas for information on cyber ne'er-do-wells. You know the sort: perverts who push e-kiddie porn, hackers who commit credit card fraud, malcontents who criticize government.

"I envision a network that extends from local detectives to the FBI to investigators abroad," Reno declared to the National Association of Attorneys General on January 10th.

The network would function "quickly and without the red tape that can slow down investigations." Red tape like constitutional protections. Red tape like jurisdictional concerns when the cyber-police cross state and international boundaries. No longer will differences such as how subpoenas are issued be obstacles. Attorneys in the audience welcomed LawNet with a standing ovation.

In 1999, Reno's dream was called FIDNET (Federal Intrusion Detection Network) -- an ongoing governmental surveillance of the Internet. But an outcry from civil libertarians effectively prevented the government from taking this particular Cold War measure against its own citizens. In August, the Clinton administration shot a different arrow at the same target. Draft legislation entitled the "Cyberspace Electronic Security Act" (CESA) took aim at the use of encryption technology. The White House plan would have authorized the alteration of hardware or software that prevented information from being obtained by the government. Courts would be able to approve the covert entry into homes and offices in order to make such alteration.

David L. Sobel, General Counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, warned, "This strikes at the heart of the Bill of Rights. It would be truly ironic if the use of encryption -- which is designed to protect privacy -- gave the police a green light to secretly break into homes."

Then, on January 7, Bill Clinton announced the National Plan for Information Systems Protection, complete with budget proposals. (To download a copy, click here.) In the "Message from the President" that prefaces the Plan, Clinton calls it "the first major element of a more comprehensive effort." The "Message for the National Coordinator" declares the Plan to be "the first attempt by any national government to design a way to protect its cyberspace." By the nature of the case, such protection involves controlling all cyberspace. The Plan is to be in effect by December 2000 and fully operational by May 2003.

The Clinton administration is actively recruiting and training the army of so-called "white hat hackers" -- that is, pro-government hackers -- that the Plan will require. A 'Federal Cyber Services Training and Education' initiative has been funded. Part of the program involves offering a GI bill-style program to students. At a press briefing on January 7th, Dick Clarke -- described as the President's counterterrorism czar -- explained the program:

"The typical federal requirement is a year of service for every year of scholarship. So if, for example, someone had a four-year undergraduate program at James Madison or somewhere else, we would expect them to do four years of service in the federal government..."

Meanwhile, as the assault troops of the Plan are being recruited, LawNet will be the enforcement arm of the Plan. Of course, with Orwellian bravado, LawNet is touted as a defense of consumer privacy. To back up this statement, Reno is fond of citing the CD Universe extortion example. There, a hacker broke into the databank of a music retailer and stole credit card numbers, which he tried to hold for ransom.

Such palpably weak arguments are being swallowed whole by many in the computing world. For example, Peter G. Neumann of SRI International's Computer Science Lab commends the government's efforts. Of course, Neumann sat on the Presidential commission that recommended such proposals. He surely couldn't have been influenced by the fact that computer businesses will reap huge contracting fees as they rush to implement government's Plan of global surveillance. Last fall, Neumann declared, "The reason we have a security problem is the same reason we have a year-2000 problem: heads in the sand."

At the same January 7th press briefing, Secretary of Commerce Bill Daley reiterated Neumann's argument. Daley observed, "We just spent, as we all know, about $100 billion as a nation, private sector and the public sector, in correcting the Y2K problem. If people had thought about this 25 years ago, we may not have had the situation where we would have had to spend so much. Y2K taught us many things. One is that we must be prepared."

Daley himself needs to be reminded of Y2K's lesson. Many people view it as a cautionary tale of massive overreaction by government or outright fraud by computer consultants. The Feds have launched another campaign of fear. It is a self-serving hoax through which they wish to divert your attention from reality: you, dear reader, are losing even the pretence of privacy.