, Research Paper
May 28, 2000
Privacy and the Internet
If privacy is outlawed, only outlaws will have privacy (Siegel 9). When something as vast, influential and readily evolving as the Internet is introduced to the world, there is bound to be countless issues of controversy surrounding it. In the past decade, our society has become based solely on the ability to move large amounts of information across great distances quickly and efficiently. The growing need for high-speed communications is causing a global network of interconnected computers to develop, commonly referred to as the Internet, or the World Wide Web. The Internet is having a drastic effect on the lives of people around the world. Children are exposed to it at school and at home. The Web is hastily replacing television and radio as the most frequently used information and entertainment-broadcasting medium in the world. Because Internet has become the primary key to communications in the world, the United States government, Internet users, and civil rights activists are debating over what must be done to protect Internet users and at the same time national security without stifling the innovation of the Internet. The proposals of all of the above parties have various flaws, many of which are clearly worse than others. Government regulation would restrain the permutation of the Internet and destroy its unfettered atmosphere, while self-regulation of Internet businesses cannot be enforce without the interference of the government. Because of these difficult circumstances and the urgency of some form of protection, Internet users must protect themselves from privacy and security hazards on the Internet before the government imposes strict laws that would damage the prosperity it has seen.
Many proud Americans see the Internet as the epitome of free speech. It is a place where people can express their thoughts candidly, without the fear of being judged. It has been claimed by many that the Internet can extend and enhance democracy (Beecham 13). Because there is so much freedom of speech and press on the Internet, people from around the world, in places where the government does not protect free speech, can come together to express their feelings on any issue without fear of being punished. The Internet has seen a more rapid growth in subscribers than any other medium in the history of the world. In under a decade, the user base of the Internet has gone from under one million to over 300 million subscribers. This sudden burst in popularity has made the Internet evolve so suddenly that current laws are unable to keep up with the advances in technology (Kutais 35). With so many people promoting innovations and advances on the Internet, it is nearly impossible for legislators to keep their laws relevant to current issues. When they try to make laws regulating the Internet, there is always fierce opposition to it. The problem with trying to satisfy Internet users is that it is an endless and impractical task (Dunley 124). With over 300 million users (http://www.C-I-A.com), and over one third of them in the United States, there will always be opposition to laws regulating and deregulating the Internet.
The biggest problem legislators face in policing the Internet is finding a precedent to follow. The current body of laws existing today does not apply well to the Internet. How do they classify the Internet? Is it a broadcasting medium, where the government monitors each broadcast? Is it like a bookstore, where servers cannot be expected to review every title? Is it like a phone company, which must ignore what it carries because of privacy? (Beecham 15). The trouble with trying to classify the Internet is that it can be all or none of these, depending on how it is used. The Internet cannot be viewed as one type of data transfer medium under the current broadcast definitions. The Internet differs from the broadcasting media in that one cannot just happen upon a vulgar site without first keying in a complicated address, or following a link from another source. “The Internet is much more like going into a book store and choosing to look at adult magazines” (Miller 75). Because what the Internet is used for varies from person to person, its classification is interpreted in a number of different ways. Unfortunately, it appears that the Internet cannot fit into any category, so it must undergo years of debate over how it must be controlled. Without a legal precedent to follow, it will be a long fight to freedom (Davies 68). Writing legislation on such an issue could take years.
One of the main reasons legislators are urging prompt regulation of the Internet is that they believe that the Internet threatens the security and innocence of children. The most serious safety concern is presented by the posting of personal identifying information by children–information that can be used to identify children, such as name, postal or e-mail address–in public areas, like chat rooms and bulletin boards, that are accessible to all online users. The FBI and Justice Department’s “Innocent Images” investigation has revealed that online services and bulletin boards are quickly becoming the most powerful resources used by predators to identify and contact children (Beecham 18). Evidence indicates that many children that surf the Web claim to experience problems such as inappropriate advances by adults in childrens’ chat rooms (Federal Trade Commission 25). There is considerable concern about online collection practices that bypass parents, who have traditionally protected children from marketing abuses. Children generally lack the developmental capacity and judgment to give meaningful consent to the release of personal information to a third party (Federal Trade Commission 25). The immediacy and ease with which personal information can be collected from children online, combined with the limited capacity of children to understand fully the serious safety and privacy hazards of providing that information, have created deep concerns about current information practices involving children online.
Another problem with the Internet is the unprecedented threats to personal security and privacy other Internet users face. In April 1997, the Internal Revenue Service announced that it had fired 23 employees and disciplined 349 others who used their computers Internet connections to browse through the tax returns of countless Americans (American Civil Liberties Union 3). Similarly, in 1995, a former IRS employee who was a member of the Ku Klux Klan was convicted of improper use of computers after it was discovered that he had gained unauthorized access to tax returns. That Klan member allegedly bragged that he was using his knowledge of networking and computers to gather data and build dossiers on people (American Civil Liberties Union 4). These isolated incidents demonstrate that people with access to the Internet and proper knowledge of computing can use their capabilities to gather sensitive information on unsuspecting civilians. In another incident, Navy Senior Chief Petty Officer Timothy R. McVeigh won a lawsuit recently against Naval investigators for obtaining confidential information sent about him illegally from his Internet Service Provider. The United States Navy sought to discharge this highly honored officer from service for illegally from office for violating the military s Don t ask, Don t tell policy by listing his marital status as gay on his civilian Internet user profile. Despite a legal victory, McVeigh suffered tremendous public scrutiny and stated that America Online s disclosure had ruined [his] career (American Civil Liberties Union 6).
With respect to the issue of regulating the Internet, there are two prevalent standpoints among regulation advocates. The first of which is the aspect of the conservative American. This person, like other conservatives in our political system, believes that businesses should self-regulate, and that the government should play a minimal role in the regulation of the Internet. Conservatives, in general, favor economic prosperity of businesses over protecting rights of civilians. When asked about Internet regulation, the conservatives believe that the businesses on the Internet should use a policy of self-regulation, a plan in which the government will leave regulation up to the Internet itself. The liberal, or left-wing, Internet regulation activist would most likely support a more progressive point of view: one that would almost certainly be government-imposed regulation. Government- imposed regulation is exhibited when the government forces the Internet businesses to conform to industry-wide standards. Each of these systems of regulation has countless obstacles, and must be scrutinize to prevent stifling the innovation of the Internet.
The first, more conservative, proposal to regulation of the Internet is self-regulation. Although this has many advantages over having the government imposing the regulations, American privacy protections have not kept pace with the information revolution (American Civil Liberties Union 8). Although the industry relies on self-regulation in the digital environment, self-regulation has not been widely embraced. By the Federal Trade Commissions own statistics in their report to Congress, the commission states:
This failure of implementation of privacy regulations will have a profound impact on the digital environment. Another problem with the principles of self-regulation is that they do not offer a genuine safeguard for the security of sensitive data. Some forms of data, such as medical and financial records, are so sensitive that a failure to protect [them] can have devastating and irreparable effects on the Internet (Dunley 42). One more reason that self-regulation of Internet based businesses would typically result in failure is that there is a general lack of public support for self-regulation of the Internet. To ensure privacy, the American public has made it clear that it wants someone acting as a mediator (Dunley 44) watching over businesses to ensure that they do not elude their responsibility to self-regulate.
Unlike the scheme of self-regulation, the more liberal initiative of government-imposed regulation would have much more damaging effects on the Internet if implemented. In 1996, the US Senate Conference Committee proposed the Telecommunications Deregulation Bill S. 652(H.R. 1555). This bill proposes many measures that will immediately and severely damage freedom of expression. One of its proposals is to subject minors to two years in prison and $100,000 fine if they engage in an overly salacious dating patter (Murphy, Laura W. 2) online, including during the use of private email. This would be an explicit violation to the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. An another suggestion of the Deregulation Bill is to subject adults to five years in prison for peeking at anything deemed obscene. The purpose of this is to scare users, drying up demand for the obscene material (Murphy, Laura W. 3). Although it seems unrealistic to be able to watch over every Internet user, keeping track of Internet users can be accomplished easily because everyone leaves digital footprints everywhere they go on the web. In other words, the bill would subject all Americans to the most narrow community of standards found in the most limiting of locations (Murphy, Laura W. 2). These proposals are obviously severe violations of the constitutional rights of Americans.
Governmental attempts to regulate the Internet are not just limited to obscenity and vulgar language. These attempts also fall into other areas, such as data encryption. By nature, the Internet is an insecure method of transferring data. A single e-mail packet may pass through hundreds of computers from its source to its final destination. At each computer, there is the chance that the data will be archived and someone may intercept that data. Understanding the way cryptography, the science of secret writing and codes, works is critical to understanding what Internet encryption advocates argue. Computers generally transmit data in strings of ones and zeros. Encryption software and hardware programs scramble these numbers using an algorithm or mathematical formula or the key. Thus, only an authorized person can convert the scrambled message back to its original state or readable form. The strength of encryption against interception and conversion by unintended recipients generally depends on the length of the formula or key that is required to decrypt the data. The key is generally measured by bit length; the longer the bit length, the stronger the encryption is. Thus, a 56-bit length key, which is considerably weak, could take seconds someone to decode; whereas a 128-bit length key, which is exponentially stronger, would be impossible to decode in a lifetime.
The reason that so many people prefer data encryption is that it shields the Internet user from the prying of government employees, business competitors, terrorists, hackers, thieves and nosy neighbors. Essentially, cryptography allows for the encoding of information so that only the intended recipient has the ability to understand its meaning (Siegel 3). By protecting the integrity of data from unauthorized access and abuse, it is making an immeasurable difference in the safety of the Internet. Another advantage of data encryption is that it can authenticate users. Without cryptography, there is no way of knowing who is really receiving the message someone sends. Cryptography can actually establish and verify the identity of a party to a communication (Siegel 4). Another major benefit of using encryption is that it can prevent criminals from repudiating any allegations. Often, in court, defendants deny that they ever sent an incriminating email. However, with the use of data encryption, it is now possible to protect against impersonation and denial of creation by making it impossible for a party to a communication to later deny he or she sent it (Siegel 4).
Cryptography s increasing use and popularity in the private sector has led to a predictable response by the government: their demand for access to the keys. Citing vague threats to safety and national security, the Clinton Administration has for several years demanded that the industry provide it with backdoor access to the country s information infrastructure. Professor Kenneth W. Dam, who chaired the National Research Council s Committee to Study National Cryptography Policy, has warns us that, because of the lack of consensus over cryptography, a policy of crisis is upon us (Siegel 5). There is a struggle between two sides on the issue of encryption. On one side, there are the law enforcement and national security agencies, including the Justice Department, the FBI, the National Security Council, the Drug Enforcement Agency and many state and local law enforcement agencies. On the other side, there are the representatives of the communications industry-the country s leading cryptographers, computer scientists and privacy and civil liberties advocates. The main arena for the struggle between these two sides is the U.S. Congress, where a excess of bills have been, and are being, considered.
To stop the spread of data encryption software, the U.S. government has imposed very strict laws on the exportation of encryption software. One very well known example of this is the PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) scandal. PGP is encryption software written by Phil Zimmerman, and is based on “public-key” encryption. As Zimmerman was finishing his program, he heard about a proposed Senate bill to ban cryptography, claiming that cryptography will devastate [America s] ability to fight crime and prevent terrorism (Siegel 6). This prompted him to release his program for free, hoping that it would become so popular that its use could not be stopped. One of the original users of PGP posted it at an Internet site, where anyone from any country could download it, causing a federal investigator to begin investigating Phil for violation of this new law. This program has allegedly been used for illegal purposes, and the FBI and NSA are believed to be unable to crack this code. When told about the illegal uses of his program, Zimmerman replied, “If I had invented an automobile, and was told that criminals used it to rob banks, I would feel bad, too. But most people agree the benefits to society that come from automobiles — taking the kids to school, grocery shopping and such — outweigh their drawbacks”(Siegel 8). Zimmerman later states:
If privacy is outlawed, only outlaws will have privacy. Intelligence agencies have access to good cryptographic technology. So do the big arms and drug traffickers. So do defense contractors, oil companies, and other corporate giants. But ordinary people and grassroots political organizations mostly have not had access to affordable military grade public-key cryptographic technology. Until now. PGP empowers people to take their privacy into their own hands. There’s a growing social need for it (Siegel 9).
As the Internet continues to grow throughout the world, more governments may try to impose their views onto the rest of the world through regulations and censorship. It will be a sad day when the world must adjust its views to conform to that of the most prudish regulatory governments in existence. If too many regulations are enacted, then the Internet as a tool will become nearly useless, and the Internet as a mass communication device and a place for freedom of mind and thoughts, will become nonexistent. There exists a very fine line between protecting children from pornographic material and protecting the inherent rights that all Americans are born with. The users, servers, and parents of the world must protect themselves using data encryption, so as not to force government regulation that may stifle the best communication instrument in history. If encryption becomes as widespread as Zimmerman predicts it will, there will no longer be a need for the government to intrude in the matters of the Internet, for the Internet users will protect themselves from the threats to security and privacy they face. The biggest problems will work themselves out. The government should rethink its approach to the censorship and encryption issues, allowing the Internet to continue to mature on its own to reach its full potential.