On Monday (December 20th) my flight became substantially shorter and cheerier when I came across a terrific piece by Tom Zeller Jr. in the New York Times. “On the Open Internet, a Web of Dark Alleys” (registration required) cogently introduces the general reader to the idea that there is no magic privacy-invading wand that can be waved over the internet to protect it from criminal elements.
As Zeller says, “the troubling truth is that terrorists rarely have to be technically savvy to cloak their conversations. Even simple, prearranged code words can do the job when the authorities do not know whose e-mail to monitor or which Web sites to watch.”
Zeller says it is widely believed that Mohammed Atta, suspected of being the leader of the Sept. 11 hijackers, transmitted this final message to his co-conspirators over the Internet: “The semester begins in three more weeks. We've obtained 19 confirmations for studies in the faculty of law, the faculty of urban planning, the faculty of fine arts, and the faculty of engineering.” Encryption was hardly necessary – who but the participants would imagine that the faculties represented the World Trade center and the Pentagon?
To drive the idea home, Zeller then reports on an another extreme case of how low tech trumps high tech:
Michael Caloyannides, a computer forensics specialist and a senior fellow at Mitretek Systems, a nonprofit scientific research organization based in Falls Church, Va., said the nature of a networked universe made it possible for just about anyone to communicate secretly. Conspirators do not even need to rely on code-hiding programs, because even automated teller machines can be used to send signals, Dr. Caloyannides explained,
A simple withdrawal of $20 from an account in New York might serve as an instant message to an accomplice monitoring the account electronically from halfway around the world, for example.
Tom Zeller has an amazing talent for making complex ideas seem simple. It is great to have him thinking and writing about these widely misunderstood issues.
Conspirators are able to make use of the current internet – an insecure internet which leaks personal information and is contemptuous of privacy – to help accomplish their goals. There is no silver bullet that can stop the kinds of attacks Zeller describes. But we do know that an internet with a stronger identity framework, including more privacy, would make citizens, businesses and governments safer in many other ways.