America's New War?
Privacy Trade-Offs Reassessed
Objections to Surveillance Technology Face New Test After Attack
By Ariana Eunjung Cha and Jonathan Krim
When the FBI came knocking a year ago, asking Internet companies to install an e-mail eavesdropping program so that the bureau could catch potential criminals, many executives balked. It was, they said, an invasion of personal privacy.
But yesterday, when the agents came seeking information that might help them find the perpetrators of the attacks that likely killed thousands at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, some were willing even eager to help out.
"As much as I don't like the intrusive nature of online surveillance technology, I really want to find the guys who did this," said a security director at a mid-size Internet access provider who asked not to be identified because the investigation is ongoing.
Just two days after the worst terrorist strike on U.S. soil, some people are reassessing the trade-offs between privacy and security.
To some, inconveniences such as long lines at metal detectors and other checkpoints suddenly seem tolerable. Instead of talking about how eerie the sight of military planes and tanks in New York and Washington is, some are saying they find them comforting. Surveillance cameras monitoring public streets sound sensible.
But others are wondering just how much freedom they would be willing to give up. Some worry that this week's violence will lead to an overreaction that tramples on people's rights, such as the internment of Japanese Americans after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
"Yesterday changed the way we live and there's a whole new dimension in the debate over privacy versus security," said Mike Assante, a former Navy intelligence officer who works for Vigilinx Inc., a Parsippany, N.J.-based group that provides online security services for companies such as power plants and pharmaceutical makers. "More people seem to be willing to compromise but no one seems to have figured out just yet what's reasonable."
Members of Congress said yesterday they want to study whether giving the government more surveillance authority might avert such attacks in the future.
Both Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Arizona Republican Sen. Jon Kyl separately said lawmakers need to consider whether the capabilities should be strengthened. But that reassessment should be "consistent with constitutional freedoms at the core of our national ideals," Leahy said yesterday.
"The question is whether you overreact in pursuit of a handful of terrorists and in the process change the constitutional protections of millions of American citizens," said Joseph Turow, a professor who specializes in privacy and new media at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School of Communication.
Some telephone companies yesterday announced they were prepared to expedite wiretapping requests from the FBI. The agency, meanwhile, has been seeking customer information and e-mail messages from Internet service providers for some of the people on the passenger lists for the four planes that were apparently hijacked, sources said.
The agency declined to comment on the requests, citing its policy of not talking about the details of open investigations. But the country's largest and third-largest online services, America Online Inc. and EarthLink Inc., confirmed that they had received requests from the government. Like other Internet providers, the two have generally greeted subpoenas, court orders and the like seeking information about their customers begrudgingly. The language they used yesterday was markedly more receptive.
"We have been approached [by law enforcement officials], and we've complied. And we stand ready to help some more," said AOL spokesman Nicholas Graham. EarthLink's Dan Greenfield concurred: "EarthLink is cooperating with government officials to get to the bottom of this thing."
AOL, a unit of AOL Time Warner Inc., declined to comment about the number or nature of requests, but EarthLink's Greenfield, a vice president, said the company had received one request for what he called an "electronic wiretap."
The two companies emphasized that the FBI had not installed Carnivore, the nickname for a controversial e-mail eavesdropping technology that has drawn the ire of lawmakers and consumer advocates. They said they were using their own technology to pull data from their systems.
Several smaller providers located on the West Coast, however, said on the condition of anonymity that they had agreed to allow the FBI to use their equipment to monitor e-mail traffic. They declined to comment on when the eavesdropping equipment, formally known as DSC1000, would be operational or how long it would remain up. The system is basically a black box that sits on an Internet provider's network watching communications. Federal agents retrieve information by physically taking a removable memory core from the system.
Privacy advocates have been concerned about the technology's ability to track everyone's e-mail, including innocent citizens suspected of nothing. The FBI has said the technology can home in on specific communications it needs to examine but it has not been willing to divulge how the technology works.
Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte (R-Va.) said no new law-enforcement initiatives should be enacted at the expense of civilian rights against unwarranted government intrusion.
"When the president talks about fighting back to protect our freedom, that includes freedom from intrusion into innocent people's lives," Goodlatte said in an interview. "We can't have our society go to one of Big Brother."
But Eva Chung, a 34-year-old from Columbia, who is a mother of two young children, said that after the nightmares of the past few days, Big Brother doesn't sound all that bad. She said she has been grateful for all the additional security measures she has seen introduced in the area recently. Rather than being frightened by the soldiers with machine guns in front of the White House, she said she was glad they were there.
"I am very much for what this country was founded on, freedom and the Bill of Rights and everything. But when it's a matter of people's lives and making sure we all have a nice place to live, then I would definitely give up the privacy part to ensure the other part," Chung said.