This is a reprint from The Tartan, Carnegie Mellon University's campus newspaper. The article appeared in Volume 96, issue 10, Nov. 5, 2001.

The article can also be found on the Tartan's website

"Computing after the World Trade Center" seminar addresses surveillance and privacy issues in depth

Shilpa Desai, Junior Staffwriter

Last Thursday, Lenore Blum, distinguished career professor of computer science, moderated a seminar entitled "Computing after the World Trade Center: Surveillance and Privacy. (John Davin, Production Manager)

Last Thursday's seminar, "Computing after the World Trade Center: Surveillance and Privacy, was an engaging discussion regarding the impact of September 11 on new government policies on privacy and surveillance (in increasing efforts for the war on terrorism). This discussion was also an eye-opener regarding one question: Is the enhancement of law enforcement surveillance worth the loss of personal privacy? The distinguished panel of speakers included Dr. Mike Shamos, director of the Universal Library and principal systems scientist in the Language Technologies Institute at the School of Computer Science; Dr. Dave Touretzky, principal scientist for the School of Computer Science; Dr. George Duncan, professor of statistics in the Heinz School of Public Policy; Dr. Latanya Sweeney, an assistant professor in the School of Computer Science and in the Heinz School of Public Policy; Elaine Newton, a PhD candidate in engineering and public policy, and Dr. Illah Nourbakhsh, an assistant professor in the Robotics Institute. Lenore Blum, distinguished career professor of computer science, moderated the discussion, centered around how the future of computing could be changed dramatically after the events of September 11.

On Friday, October 26, President George Bush signed the bill HR 31-62, USA-Patriot Act. This bill dramatically altered the government policy on surveillance (amongst other things) in the United States. Dr. Shamos spoke in detail about this bill, and provided many specifics. The primary motive behind the bill is to enhance government capability of determining who is a terrorist; this includes freer permission to plant electronic devices that follow people around. Before, it was very difficult to get permission to legally go about monitoring natural-born and naturalized citizens in the United States in such a manner, but after the bill of October 26, the permission has become extremely easy to obtain. The attorney general, or whoever is in charge of the investigation, must only show that the monitoring will be done because it is relevant for the ongoing investigation. Note that this bill does not actually violate the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution, which protects citizens from "unreasonable searches and seizures." The government does not believe that the new bill will violate the Fourth Amendment, because it accounts for reasonable searches and seizures. The bill also provides for governmental rights to ask any educational institution for the detailed information about any non-immigrant alien student (including identity, academic status, disciplinary action taken in past); and the definition of an "educational institution" has obviously been extended to include language training and flight schools. Regarding money, the bill now expands the current limit on the size of financial transactions that need not be reported to $10,000. Lastly, any activities that threaten human life and violate federal or state law are now considered acts of terrorism.

Dr. Touretzky continued from where Dr. Shamos concluded, by pointing out that perhaps giving so much power to the government is not really that good. To begin, computer hacking has now been redefined as an act of terrorism; protest groups such as Operation Rescue, Earth First, and WTO protesters will now be classified as "terrorists and put into the same category as bin Laden's people." The "sneak and peek" method of obtaining information, in which the investigators pry into the suspect's personal belongings and conduct their investigation but never tell the suspect, has been given extended permission to cover all criminal investigations (not only terrorism-related investigations). These extensions, along with many others that were not mentioned, seem to be gratuitous and not related to truly fighting terrorism. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is very concerned about this, and is likely planning to voice its objections in the near future. Dr. Touretzky validly pointed out that the government is run by human beings, and when given too much power, humans will tend to misuse that power. So in short, the government has really empowered itself with this bill, and while an empowered government is what most Americans now want, we must stop to wonder if it has been over-empowered.

The seminar continued with Dr. Duncan speaking about using our current technology to enhance data privacy and data utility. Dr. Sweeny spoke about the need to preserve some amount of anonymity even after the events of September 11 (since the government can link people by their date of birth and zip code to their name by simply crossing various data bases). Elaine Newton spoke about the development of the field of biometrics, the field which enables people to be identified and checked by personal traits such as fingerprints, hand shape, facial recognition, and iris scans. This field is rapidly growing, especially after the recent terrorist attacks. However, Ms. Newton pointed out, many adjustments have to be made, and the real scans are nothing like the movies in which everything transpires without a glitch, lots of fine tuning still has to be done. Lastly, Dr. Nourbakhsh spoke about the development of and new uses for robots which will aid in fighting terrorism in the coming years.

The seminar concluded with the question, What steps should people take to protect ourselves (from the authorities or from terrorism) and how should resources be allocated to make sure were all safe and to protect the safety of others?" posed to all panelists who wished to respond. The question was answered in part by Dr. Touretzky showing that CMU has already done a great deal of things, but should take further steps to equip the community with PGP mail, teach everyone to use encryption, and be knowledgeable about the government's actions. Dr. Duncan pointed out that even though the government does many questionable things, we shouldn't always be under the assumption that the government is "out to get us." Dr. Nourbakhsh stated that whatever is done, people should definitely not stick their heads in the sand everyone should be aware of what's going on. Dr. Shamos ended on the note that we "should do a lot of research on what our vulnerabilities are, and in terms of protecting oneself from the authorities, I think that's the Unibomber solution: build your own private cabin in Montana and live there."