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Attack investigation prompts e-mail privacy concerns

September 30, 2001 

Soon after the recent terrorist attack, the government learned the terrorists used e-mail to communicate. It subpoenaed its way into various domains to inspect this communication. No one objected. With the county's trauma, it didn't seem appropriate to whine about a minor privacy loss.

Weeks later, we all must face the possibility that certain freedoms may be curtailed in order to preserve our way of life. Still, licensing the government to root around in our e-mail isn't the wisest path.

It starts with a conflict. "From an information-technology perspective, I object to the loss of privacy," said Dave Murphy, president of ITrain in Elkridge, Md. "But as a U.S. citizen, I want to get behind the government to fight these terrorists."

Setting the privacy issue aside for a minute, riffling through servers is time-consuming and inefficient. Most people send unencrypted mail back and forth, which can be easily read by a third party. Some add encryption and cryptic language, if they are worried about security.

You would imagine that terrorists would be somewhat more circumspect. They may use rotating personal codes, turning innocent messages into inflammatory prose. So the government tracks down the perpetrator, wades through his messages and comes up with "have a nice day." Any conscious terrorist could fool this system in a second.

Murphy points out it can take two days to break encryption, and this may not give enough warning for the eavesdroppers to turn the random data into useful information.

This latest group allegedly communicated in code through web-mail addresses to people they never met. We could argue for hours about how terrorists could use e-mail to communicate, and how each side can use technology to outsmart the other.

Eventually, these arguments sputter out. With the gazillions of messages daily, finding a uniform way to monitor and control the information will do much to sacrifice the privacy and convenience of good citizens, while it leaves the bad guys a way to outsmart the latest controls.

I don't really care if the government wants to inspect my e-mail for clues, if it will help to catch crooks. However, it probably will be a futile exercise. One of the rules of smart e-mail is to never send anything that can come back to haunt you. Someone who wants to use e-mail to send hidden messages or plan secret attacks can find an easy way to do so, and will always stay one step ahead of the feds.

Before we throw this particular privacy away, let's make sure it will make a difference.

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by Charles Bermant, Copyright © 2001 The Seattle Times Company

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