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EDITIONS
Friday, 22 November, 2002, 16:11 GMT
Doubts over hi-tech terror fight
Comdex delegates
Delegates discussed link between hi-tech and security

Comdex is more than just gadgets and cool computers.

As computers and the internet have become more of a part of everyday life, technology has become part of the complex political debates involving security and privacy.

Such debates have increased in following the September 11 attacks as the US Government has greatly expanded its domestic surveillance activities and its use of hi-tech tools to sift through mountains of data in an effort to head off future attacks.

The debate on terrorism versus liberty and the role of technology took centre stage at Comdex.

Net surveillance

It highlighted some of thorny legal issues that have been raised in the past year.


An overriding concern is that short term acts for expediency's sake lead to long term erosion of our rights

Larry Dietz, Symantec
The moderator asked a three-person panel whether the government should be able to carry out surveillance of a mosque if it was believed that two of the worshippers there were suspected of plotting a terrorist attack.

"You gotta have a reason, a really damn good reason," responded Larry Dietz, director of market intelligence with Symantec, a computer security firm.

That reason is known as probable cause under US law and sets standards for when police would be able to begin surveillance of a group or of an individual.

Standards were set higher if the surveillance involved a religious or political group after abuses came to light under J Edgar Hoover at the FBI.

But Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, (Epic), said that Attorney General John Ashcroft has revised investigative procedures for the FBI, eroding the need for probable cause to carry out surveillance of a political organisation or religious meetings.

Those revised guidelines also changed the type of surveillance the FBI can conduct on the internet.

Previously agents faced restrictions when monitoring websites, chat rooms or news groups unless in pursuit of a specific investigation.

That changed under the new guidelines.

Adapting to change

Mr Dietz is worried that temporary changes enacted to combat terrorism might become permanent.

Demonstration at Comdex
Comdex is not just about gadgets
"An overriding concern is that short term acts for expediency's sake lead to long term erosion of our rights," he said.

But the panel was also concerned that profiling, either by police or by authorities using massive databases, might not be effective.

"Terrorists will change their methods, will attack vectors," said Mr Dietz.

"On September 10, airplanes were not considered attack vectors. A few years ago, females were not considered suicide bombers," he said.

And if the profile of a terrorist is of Middle Eastern men in their 20s and 30s, it would have missed Timothy McVeigh or Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski," Epic's Mr Rotenberg said.

He also said that a year ago in Washington, a former US intelligence officer said during a panel discussion that the presence of "aerosolised, weapons-grade" anthrax demonstrated that Iraq was behind the anthrax attacks and the 11 September attacks.

It has since been shown that the anthrax came from a US weapons laboratory and that the technique used to mill and aerosolise the spores was developed in US labs, he said.

In the headlines

The topic has currency as the Senate passed President Bush Homeland Security Act this week.

It was revealed that the government is researching methods to sift through databases of private and public information in an attempt to identify potential terrorists.


The Homeland Security Act, unfortunately, creates more opportunities for government surveillance in the US

Marc Rotenberg, Epic

The Homeland Security Act sets in motion the largest reorganisation of the US Government in 40 years.

Like many laws passed to combat terrorism in the last year, some provisions will greatly impact computer and internet users.

"The Homeland Security Act, unfortunately, creates more opportunities for government surveillance in the United States," said Mr Rotenberg.

There is a new provision in the act called the Computer Security Enhancement Act, which allows for broader surveillance of internet service providers and internet users.

"I think privacy has been sacrificed," he said.

Big Brother

Privacy activists such as Mr Rotenberg are crying foul as it has become known that John Poindexter, involved in the Iran-Contra scandal, is leading a research project called Total Information Awareness at the Pentagon.

The project at the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Pentagon department that created the internet, would analyse mountains of data in commercial and government databases.

The software would be looking for patterns of activity that might hint at possible terrorist activities.

The press has been quick to condemn the project because of the shady past of Mr Poindexter, who escaped prosecution in the Iran-Contra scandal through a Congressional immunity agreement, but also because of the Orwellian implications of such a project.

See also:

21 Nov 02 | Business
19 Nov 02 | Business
18 Nov 02 | Business
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