The devil is in the (technological) details

The 13th annual conference on Computers, Freedom and Privacy (CFP) got off to a fiery start in New York Wednesday as speakers debated the possible effects of increased security and surveillance measures put forth since the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S.

But while attendees clearly expressed their concerns over the possible impact of proposals such as an expansion to the USA Patriot Act, and a Total Information Awareness (TIA) program, the technology behind the new measures appeared much more murky.

TIA, for example, seeks to connect government and possibly some commercial databases which could then be data-mined for detecting terrorist activities, yet the extent of the databases, filtering measures and possible privacy safeguards have not been detailed. Even the definition of "datamining" seemed up in the air as speakers on both sides of the issue butted heads over whether the proposed program should come to fruition.

"The database technology is at issue, and whether it will be just inside the government or includes commercial databases is unknown," said Katie Corrigan, legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

And when it comes to the possible impact such proposals would have on privacy "the devil is in the details," Corrigan added.

This appeared to be the case with many topics addressed at the conference Wednesday, where discussions over privacy were often tied to the use and extent of the technology in question. Often, no one seemed to know exactly what technology proposals such as TIA or new passenger profiling systems entailed.

Despite this, proponents of the new government proposals believed that technology is one of the nation's greatest assets when it comes to preventing terrorism.

"The technology is there or being developed and it would be ridiculous not to use it," said Michael Scardaville, a policy analyst with the Heritage Foundation Davis Institute for International Policy Studies.

"(TIA) is not the Orwellian monster described by many critics," he added.

Yet Barbara Simmons, co-chair of the Association for Computing Machinery's U.S. Public Policy Committee, warned that technology is not the only solution and will not solve all the problems in the world.

In reference to TIA, Simmons pointed to technical questions concerning the number of false positives produced by the system as a great concern.

While the details of new government security and surveillance programs will no doubt be debated at length, the mere existence of so many possibly privacy-affecting measures is what concerned some the most.

George Radwanski, Canada's Privacy Commissioner, said the measures being contemplated in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks "would have been unacceptable in most Western societies a few years ago."

"We must guard against governments using Sept. 11 as a Trojan horse to implement new privacy invasive technologies," Radwanski said.

But first, Corrigan recommended that everyone become more knowledgeable about exactly what the technologies are.

CFP 2003 runs through Friday.

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