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Reining in The Internet

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Not since the automobile has any technology so confounded law enforcement
officials that they resorted to full-scale assaults on the constitution in order
to keep pace with the bad guys.

When the automobile first appeared at the beginning of the last century, law
enforcement agencies could not keep pace with their horse-drawn wagons, and
could not afford to invest in the new-fangled machines. So they resorted instead
to attempts to have automobiles banned. Or limited in speed. Or otherwise crippled
so they could not outrun the sheriff.

They are in the same bind today with the Internet. The tools that helped to
thwart organized crime 60 years ago don’t work with the Internet. Virtual
Private Networks shield data from investigation. Services like Skype automatically
encrypt phone conversations, rendering them immune to wire taps. Emails can
be easily encrypted, as can hard drives, folders and documents.

I am sympathetic to the plight of our officers. They are caught between the
bad guys, a desire to protect the public and a technology deck that seems stacked
against them. But I am not willing to level the playing field by allowing local,
state and federal officers to toss the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution
into the scrap heap. You know, the part about being secure in our persons, houses,
papers and effects.

In the past two years, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has mounted a
concerted campaign to force Internet Service Providers to retain everything
about everyone online for a period of two years, just in case they might ever
want to sift through this data looking for a crime. There are lots of things
wrong with this scheme, not the least of which is that it doesn’t work.
That’s the judgment of the European Union, which tried this scheme and
found that it didn’t have much impact on crime fighting.

Nonetheless, the DOJ is back before Congress this year, asking for a data
retention law for Internet Service Providers. And also an ability to hack into
encrypted phone calls. The White House, even more ambitiously, wants the ability
to shut down the Internet entirely if it deems a national emergency so requires.

I would be less skeptical of giving the government such powers if they had
a good record of responsibility when it comes to the Internet. But they don’t.
In fact, the record is one of blunders, bad information and worse intentions.

It’s not just the infamous “SunDevil” operation, in which
the FBI arrested the wrong people. Or the dozens of “National Security
Letters” illegally issued in the past few years to pry into Internet records.
It stretches right up to this month, when the Department of Homeland Security
(DHS) acted to shut down 84,000 websites it claimed were violating copyright
and child pornography laws. Oops … no, they were not.

The DHS seized control of the 84,000 websites, most of them belonging to small
business, and replaced them with the notice that the operators of the sites
were child pornographers. Even though they seized the sites with no evidence

I am a law-and-order kind of guy. And as I have often stated, any law enforcement
officer who taps my phone calls or views what I browse online would be at serious
risk of being bored to death. My emails lean toward corny jokes and tech news,
not high crimes and misdemeanors.

But I am also mindful of Ben Franklin’s adage that “Those who
would sacrifice freedom for security deserve neither.”

This isn’t some theoretical or philosophical discussion. Any accountant
who is using hosted accounting solutions, stores data in the “cloud”
or communicates without encrypting their data risks having that data misused.
Or worse, having their clients falsely accused of vile crimes.

So what is the balance we should seek between security and freedom? In my
mind, it begins with better technology for law enforcement. The fact that the
FBI last year scrapped and wrote off its brand-new, $150 million computer system
as a failure is a good indication that something is awry with IT for law enforcement.
It also begins with more education and training for law enforcement officers
at every level. If the criminals are trading horses for automobiles, so should
our peace officers. Same with computer systems and the Internet.

And it ends precisely at the point where the needs of law enforcement conflict
with the Fourth Amendment.


Reality Check
A compendium of ideas, products, rants and raves from the viewpoint of the author.
Not that the author has no financial interests in any of the products mentioned.
Feel free to disagree, or to share your ideas by sending them to

Internet Site of the Month: Internet Explorer 9. (
If you have not yet upgraded to this new version, now is the time — even
if it is still in beta. The version offered here is stable, interesting, faster
and better … and will be automatically updated when the final version
is released.

Internet Explorer 9. Microsoft is in the process of releasing
this most recent version of its popular browser, designed to be the fastest
and easiest browser to date. It offers support for the new HTML5 language,
which enhances security because of the ability to turn off Active-X support
— long the source of hacks of the browser.

Broadband Use Rates
. According to the U.S. government, use of broadband
grew by a whopping 5 percent last year — a near-miraculous feat in a
year of galloping recession. How did this happen? Well, mostly by fudging
the numbers. By including the decidedly not high-speed mobile phone data use
in the mix, they are able to show growth when virtually none occurred. Broadband
over a cell phone is still not of sufficient speed or quality to make a meaningful
browsing experience, and the data should not be mixed.

Win On Jeopardy
. So a computer wins over a human at answering questions
on Jeopardy … what did you expect? Answering trivia questions is really
not much of an achievement, even with the bells and whistles of adapting to
a human interface. It was fun to watch, but the outcome was never really in
doubt. Now show me a computer that appreciates a sunset, and I’ll be

High-Tech Toilets
. The Japanese are different from Americans, if
in no other way than their love of high-tech gadgets in the toilet. Their
toilet bowls include such features as ion-odor control sprays, remote controls,
music, and video games you can play with your urine! Last year a musical tribute
to clean toilets hit the Japanese best-seller lists. Sigh! There are some
tech trends I can live without experiencing.

Gaming consoles. I love video games on the PC. Doom, Quake,
Halo and Duke Nuke’m are all favorites, though I don’t have the
time I once did to indulge in them. Game consoles have been of lesser interest,
due to the additional cost of both the equipment and games. That’s changing,
though, as the Wii, X-Box and Play Station evolve out of mere gaming and into
the realms of Internet browsing and movie downloads. I’m not yet ready
to shell out the better part of $500 for one, but I am thinking about it.