Friday, May 16, 2008

When Do We Exit the Information Superhighway?

Information technology is an enabling or empowering technology. A computer and cell phone can allow one person to do the same work that required roomfuls of people sixty years ago. Unfortunately, our law enforcement and criminal justice system seem to be dinosaurs. While the police have started to use databases, social networks and the like to empower their jobs, we still see evidence everyday that they only go after low hanging fruit. Prosecuting someone for having pictures of kiddie porn on their computer is one of those fruits. It requires little effort by the police to obtain the evidence, and the prosecutor generally doesn't have to even go to court. Usually, such cases end up as plea bargains. They are sexy cases. They add another notch to the prosecutor's list of successes (quantity over quality), but it's sad as well. For one thing, the violator is likely a mentally ill individual who needs couseling rather than a criminal record and listing as a sexual offender. (I'm talking about the cases where the individual may have looked at pictures but never acted to harm a minor.) For another, there are more serious computer crimes to be investigated and prosecuted than such "thought" crimes (such as scams and online banking thefts), but chances are they never will be because the police don't have the expertise, the prosecutor sees the case as too difficult to explain to a judge or jury, or the victims don't come forward (the banks don't want their customers and competitors to know of their losses). The take home lesson in all of this is that our individual privacy is being eroded, our liberties reduced, and we are not any safer than when we started down this path. I never thought I'd see a primer on how to protect your information at the border of the United States. If I were smuggling information out of the country, I'd do so via diplomatic pouch or if I had to use the Internet, I'd hide the information using steganography or hydan and email or ftp the files using SSL or TOR, or another secure protocol like sftp or ssh. It also turns out that the US government doesn't want to make its networks any more secure than they are. The new cybersecurity initiative is a smokescreen to allow the NSA to monitor and eavesdrop on the entire Internet. They likely already are, but they must be getting rid of some pesky legal restrictions that interfere with their spying efforts (the Wiretap Act and ECPA). Except for the NSA, all of these actions point to the government going after easy targets, stupid criminals, and we citizens will suffer because of it. The government will not likely catch the careful and thoughtful criminals and spies, but to the contrary, likely help them out (the latest Fed bailout?).

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Great post John

Australia, as usual, is following the US lead on security. It appears our NSA equivalent may be getting into the domestic game as well.

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