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Box cutters, some flight training and a lot of determination. Although it now seems clear that the hijackers of September 11 had the support of an international terror organization, the real lesson is that it is frighteningly easy for a small number of intelligent people, acting together, to do a tremendous amount of damage.

Technologists routinely underestimate the power of lowtech attacks. After all, it’s much more interesting (and lucrative) to work on the Bush administration’s national missile defense project than to think up practical strategies for protecting office buildings from fire, truck bombs and suicide pilots.

But even more disturbing than our failure to plan for the terrorist attack is the nature of our antiterrorist planning in the days that followed. Two days after the attacks, New Hampshire senator Judd Gregg called for a global ban on “uncrackable” encryption systems.Within a week, Attorney General John Ashcroft started arguing for a dramatic expansion in the FBI’s authority to wiretap telephones; his proposed law would make such taps much easier to obtain.Meanwhile, there are calls to expand the use of the FBI’s e-mail interception system, known as Carnivore, and the National Security Agency’s Echelon surveillance system (see “Will Spyware Work?”). Even a national identification card with ATM-like verification stations might be in the works.

Ashcroft and Bush want Congress to act fast; by the time you read this, their legislative agenda will be law. But even after Congress does as it is told, and even if the Supreme Court upholds the new laws as Constitutional, America won’t be a fundamentally safer place.

Let’s look first at wiretapping, a tremendously powerful crime-fighting technology. With fewer than 2,000 authorized in the United States each year, wiretaps are so rare that crooks almost never expect them; it’s not uncommon to hear perpetrators joking on intercept tapes that they should be careful with what they say because the cops are probably listening in. And the government has already taken significant steps to make wiretapping more effective. In 1994, Congress passed legislation that opened the world of digital telephony to the G-man’s alligator clips. The law requires that every telephone switch sold in the United States be wiretap ready. It forces cell-phone companies to deploy equipment that exists solely for the purpose of intercepting phone conversations and sending an audio copy to the feds.

The wiretap laws still need some work. Back in 1995, for example, nobody imagined that drugstores would one day be selling disposable cell phones: it simply doesn’t make sense to force the FBI to get a different wiretap order for every phone number that it wishes to bug. That’s why the law was amended again to allow the use of “roving wiretaps.” According to the U.S. government’s own Wiretap Report, roving wiretaps were approved for seven federal investigations and 20 state investigations in 2000. (More than half of those cases were drug investigations; none of them were for terrorism.)

But even with such authority, and even if Ashcroft’s expanded wiretap provisions had been in place in August 2001, it is doubtful that the September 11 attacks would have been anticipated, let alone prevented. And if we require the FBI to wiretap every phone call of every foreigner in the United States, it’s doubtful that the agency will have the resources to even listen to all the tapes, let alone make sense of the often guarded language of people plotting crimes.

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Tagged: Communications

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