The Double Edge of Computers

by Anonymous
Number 87 – Aug 1997

In Chinese philosophy, two principles, one negative and dark (yin), and one positive and bright (yang), interact to influence the destinies of creatures and things. The computer is certainly not immune to these forces that we Americans sometimes refer to as a double-edged sword. The unique technology of the computer enables it be used not only to improve the quality of life and our standard of living, but as a very effective tool that can be used by government to oppress and terrorize us into submission.

On the one hand computers enable this author to write with unparalleled speed, accuracy and convenience. The computer enables me to connect to the internet and read what someone in England or Russia may have written 10 minutes ago, instead of buying a magazine and reading the same article months after it was written. Because of the computer I am able to send electronic mail to someone who may be half-way around the world and it will be delivered to them in a matter of minutes, when it would normally take government postal services a number of days or even weeks to do the same thing. And of course, point-of-sale or point-of-shipment systems allow businesses to be more efficient by immediately knowing what they are selling for inventory or accounting purposes.

But on the other hand, the inherent aspect of the computer which allows for this inexpensive acquisition, processing, storage and retrieval of information is why government in the United States has a greater ability to control people than any other government has had in the history of the world. And government isn’t the only culprit in using the computer to compile information on us. Private industry doesn’t just use the power of the computer to make sure you don’t run out of soap and Jell-O at your local market, but also to track your monetary status and your buying and spending patterns to know what advertising mailer to send you next.

It is disturbing that few of these invasions of privacy are explicitly consensual. The mere act of living in our society makes one’s every movement subject to being recorded and catalogued by someone somewhere for future reference. The computerization of America provides dramatic evidence of perhaps the greatest attitudinal shift that has occurred in any society in history. In just several generations, the concept of personal privacy has gone from being a valued ideal, to one where anyone who desires privacy today is almost immediately considered to be a suspicious person. A television documentary shown a couple of years ago demonstrated how much can be learned about any one of us in a matter of hours. A reporter wrote down the license plate number of a car picked at random driving on the freeway. Within twenty four hours the reporter had found the name of the woman driving the car, as well as the name of her husband and children. He had also found out where she lives, works, what bank she uses and how much money she makes at her job. He also learned what college she’d graduated from and how much is owed on her family’s house, as well as much more. All of this information was obtained from readily available public computer databases – not secret government files.

Computers are certainly not alone in this duality of use, because literally every creation of the human mind can be used for purposes of enhancing life or destroying it. For example, picks and shovels can be used to dig a basement, but they are very labor intensive. By contrast, explosives are very labor efficient. In less time, a couple of people with dynamite can duplicate the chaos and destruction that it would take hundreds or thousands of people swinging picks and shovels to do. And of course, nuclear weapons are the ultimate expression of this contrast in efficient destruction versus inefficient destruction.

By the same token, because the computer can be deployed in a relatively efficient way, it is much more invasive of people’s privacy than, for example, the paper file method that was used in Nazi Germany to keep track of personal information about people. Would it have been possible to hide large numbers of people in attics or cellars for years if the Nazis had the computer technology that is available to the U.S. government today? It is highly unlikely considering that computers monitor the water, electricity, and gas used at houses, and it is not uncommon for utility companies to notify law enforcement agencies of abnormal usage. Additionally, the government has virtually unbridled access to all your bank, credit card, and investment accounts as well as such things as your phone records. There are so many computerized red flags that could be set off that it would be extraordinarily difficult to conceal people in the United States the way they were in Nazi-occupied countries during World War II.

Tyrants of the past would be green with envy for the way in which computers facilitate the monitoring of almost our every move. In 1981, I told a skeptical friend that the computer was the greatest threat to freedom ever created. The computer destroys privacy, and without privacy, what freedom is there except in one’s mind? George Orwell drove this point home with a sledge hammer in his book “1984.” Id like to review just a few of the news items I’ve seen in the past few months for a reality check on how valid my observation of 15 years ago was.
The first article of note appeared in October 1995 issue of AMERICAN HERITAGE magazine and detailed how the Defense Department, through the Air Force, spent many millions financing the development of the internet. The Defense Department needed to develop a means of communication that wouldn’t be disabled during a nuclear war, when all conventional means of communication (radio and telephone) could be rendered useless by direct physical destruction and atmospheric electromagnetic interference. The internet is not a product of the free market, it solely owes its existence to the desire of the Defense Department to make nuclear war a practical alternative to conventional warfare. In a twist of the norm for government-funded projects, the U.S. government is apparently getting something of real value in return for financing the creation of the internet. According to the February 1996 issue of BOARDWATCH Magazine, over 90% of all U.S. defense related information traffic is presently carried over the internet.
The second article (“Wisecrackers”) appeared in the March 1996 issue of WIRED MAGAZINE. It details how wise the words of Edgar Allan Poe (the poet and amateur cryptographer) were when he wrote, “It may roundly be asserted that human ingenuity cannot concoct a cipher which human ingenuity cannot resolve.” The relative ineffectiveness of computer security systems is obvious by the number of cases where hackers have broken into not just top secret government computers, but the computer systems of large private companies (like the phone company) who have the resources to employ the best and brightest computer security experts. In the article, Phil Zimmermann, who wrote the world’s most widely used computer encryption program, PGP (Pretty Good Privacy), admits that PGP is vulnerable to being cracked. The editor of BOARDWATCH Magazine, Jack Rickard, has suggested not putting faith in any encryption program to protect your privacy. At some point, perhaps even right now, the government will be able to read any encrypted electronic mail message as easily as you’re reading this.
The third article was in a COMPUTER BITS magazine and reported that the U.S. Energy Department is paying Intel $45 million to develop a computer that is 10 times faster than any existing computer. The official purpose of the computer is to simulate the effects of a nuclear war in real time. This computer will be capable of making 1.8 trillion computations per second, which is the equivalent computing power of 90,000 Pentium computers. When this computer isn’t playing war games there is nothing to prevent it from being used to crack previously unbreakable encryption codes (see above).
The fourth article was in the January 1996 issue of DISCOVER magazine. It is about how the Defense Department, through the Army, is financing the development of computer technology that can recognize faces. [Note: See the movie – The Fifth Element] The recognition technology currently has a 98% success rate, so it is far beyond the experimental stage. The Defense Department originally wanted to develop the software for security purposes (the software works by separating a face into hundreds of zones, so it is highly successful at detecting disguises and plastic surgery, since they might only change a small part of a face) and they intend to share it with government law enforcement agencies. This is one of the most terrifying developments imaginable. The government plans to have a national database of faces to which every law enforcement agency in the U.S. will have access. This database could be used when you apply for a driver’s license. Your photo would be checked to see if you had a license in any other state, and whether you are in fact who you claim to be. The same could be done when you apply for a passport. Private companies want this technology for their own identification purposes. Stores could have cameras set up so that everyone coming into a store would be photographed and their image would be compared to a database of known shoplifters or people known for credit card fraud.
The fifth item is the U.S. Postal Service’s campaign to have jurisdiction over computer electronic mail sent within, into, or out of the United States. News items about this have appeared in newspapers and computer magazines. Officially, they want this power to be able to monitor obscene material (such as kiddie porn) that might be transmitted electronically, just as they now have that power over things sent through the mail. In reality, I think they want to have theirjurisdiction for postal crimes expanded to cover electronic mail, just as it already covers telegrams and wire transfers of money. It is not widely known, but many people have been and are currently being prosecuted for violating postal statutes, and nothing else. For example, Don King, the boxing promoter, recently had a mistrial declared in his prosecution for violating postal statues. He was accused of fraud related to a wire transfer of money.
The sixth article, “Government Access – The National Wiretap System”, appeared in the February 1996 issue of BOARDWATCH Magazine and detailed how federal legislation has been passed that, if implemented, will create a National Wiretap System. “The Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act” passed on October 7, 1994 makes it mandatory for telephone companies to provide government access to all telephone transmissions in the United States under threat of a civil penalty of $10,000 per day for non-compliance. The only thing preventing the implementation of this “Act” is the $500 million dollars that the government is mandated to pay the telephone companies for installation of the necessary equipment.

Under the “Act” the government would have the capability of simultaneously monitoring 1% of the total engineered telephone capacity for metropolitan areas in the United States! What this means is that at certain times of low phone usage (such as from midnight to 6 A.M.), the government would have the capability to monitor literally every phone conversation in the United States at the same time! This could be done in the same way that the NSA now monitors calls into and out of the United States. Computer equipment is set to “listen” for key words and when these key words are used in a conversation, recording equipment is activated. And who would be allowed to engage in this snooping To quote from the article:

“CALEA” says “government … means the government of the United States and any agency or instrumentality thereof,… and any State or political subdivision thereof authorized by law to conduct electronic surveillance…. This wiretap system ain’t just for elite federal troops. It’s for local cops (LAPD comes to mind), rural constables, politicized sheriffs, zealous prosecutors and all local and state agencies with any electronic surveillance authority-as well as the IRS, INS, ATF, FBI, CIA, DIA and … DEA. Hell, even most park rangers could use it legally!”

The seventh article, “Cyberworld Monitor – We have found the enemy! And, it is us!” also appeared in the February 1996 issue of BOARDWATCH Magazine and explains how the Department of Defense has established a Director of “Information Warfare” and is actively pursuing the creation of an “Information Corps.” The Information Corps would be an elite military force developed to mastermind information attacks and countermeasures. Under the cloak of national security initiatives, this group would act not only to defend our borders against alien attacks of aggression, but also to protect the nation’s Government from its own citizens.
The eighth item is the widely reported attack federal and state governments are making on free speech over the internet (given the military’s reliance on the internet, the Federal government probably doesn’t even need an act of Congress to impose controls; they can do so by indiscriminate fiat through the catch all of “National Security”).
The ninth item is that the IRS’s national computer system is scheduled to go online within the next couple of years. This system will enable IRS personnel anywhere in the United States to have instantaneous access to all information that the IRS has on each and every one of us.

Taken as a whole, these few news items are almost mind-numbing and they are only the tip of the iceberg. It is sobering to consider that the government couldn’t be doing any of these things without the aid of the computer. My worst fears and more have already been realized. The ability of the computer to process vast amounts of information is every petty bureaucrat’s and would-be ruler’s dream come true.

However, the government’s exploitation of computer technology doesn’t mean there is reason for unnecessary despair. Although there will always be people who work to enslave the body, mind, and soul of those who seek to carry forth the uniqueness of the human spirit, the “spark of life’ – that desire for human freedom and individuality – is difficult to extinguish. SPARTACUS, the book by Howard Fast (upon which the movie was based), illustrates that even in imperial Rome, men who were born into slavery (and whose ancestors had been slaves for several generations) still had the unquenchable desire to be free of the shackles of tyranny. The slave revolts, designated by historians as the Servile Wars, continued for over a hundred years.

The governments of the world may use the computer (or even some new invention or technology) to monitor, track, and otherwise attempt to suppress the “fire of human individuality.” But they are doomed to fail as long as that fire burns within at least one man and one woman who wittingly or unwittingly pass it along to their offspring.
[Voluntaryist Editor’s Note: This article was submitted by an anonymous contributor. While editing it for publication, I read portions of Jerry Mander’s book, IN THE ABSENCE OF THE SACRED: The Failure of Technology and the Survival of the Indian Nations (1991). Mander makes the point that technology is not neutral. Modern-era computers were developed by the British and American military during World War II to make their killing more efficient. “The U.S. military continues to be the largest single financial source for computer science research in the world. … One could argue that the recent consumerization of the computer is merely a glamorization, to help create public” acceptance of computer technology, “when (government and) military use of computers is really the point.” (p. 74) If the use of computers had been pioneered by private industry, rather than the military, then one might be able to argue that computers were not tainted by their origin in the militarism of the State.]