Bradner's column: Reinforcing paranoia

The saying goes: "Just because you are paranoid doesn't mean they are not out to get you." Just about anyone remotely concerned with individual privacy is feeling justifiably paranoid these days.

It has been a while since there was much good news for anyone interested in privacy, and most of the recent news maintains this sorry trend.

Two weeks ago, the Federal Communications Commission required telecomms companies to support six of the nine wiretapping powers the FBI requested. The FCC dropped the three powers that had the least impact on privacy.

The FCC did delay imposing the same requirements on providers of IP telephony, but given the agency's track record, you can expect those rules soon enough. The FBI praised the new rules as "going a long way to balance public safety, privacy and the needs of the telecommunications carriers."

Easy to say if you just got everything you wanted.

The US Department of Justice is asking Congress to give it the authority to break into your house to disable encryption systems in your PC.

A federal court just ruled that the ability of a telephone company to sell your calling records (whom you called and for how long) to anyone it wants is protected by the First Amendment. In a too-rare case, the FCC was the good guy trying to restrict the practice.

Dutch researcher Herman te Riele just announced that a message encrypted in a 512-bit RSA key was decrypted using a super computer and a flock of Internet-based workstations, yet the US government will not let you export technology anywhere near that strong to protect your privacy or corporate secrets.

Amazon.com for a joke added a feature that lets its users see what books are popular with its customers on a per-domain basis (for example, what people at ibm.com are buying), apparently with no thought given to the possibility that some people might see a privacy issue with the idea.

A possible ray of hope is the formation of the International Security, Trust and Privacy Alliance (http://biz.yahoo. com/prnews/990824/oh_il_istp_1. html), but nowhere in its announcement is there talk of lobbying governments to protect the security and privacy of individuals.

If lamenting the lack of privacy protection in modern society seems like a recurring theme in this column, it's because things continue to get worse.

Internet pamphleteer Dave Farber frequently signs his e-mail with a quote from Ben Franklin that expresses my worry: "They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety." But in this interconnected world, if you care so little for your essential liberty that you are willing to give it up, you are also giving up my liberty. And I rail against that.

Disclaimer: Harvard has seen rails come and go, but the above one is mine.

Scott Bradner is a consultant with Harvard University's University Information Systems. He can be reached at sob@harvard.edu.

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