"All that is old and already formed can continue to live only if it allows within itself the conditions of a new beginning."
Stopping Bin Laden: How Much Surveillance Is Too Much?
by Kevin Featherly
WASHINGTON, D.C., U.S.A., 25 Sep 2001 -- Alleged terrorism mastermind Osama bin Laden is as reliant on modern technology as were the thousands of people killed Sept. 11 in deadly terrorist hijackings in Shanksville, Pa., New York and Washington D.C., according to one expert on cyber-security and encryption policy.
And while bin Laden has proved an elusive target for the U.S., his very reliance on high-tech communications could be turned back on him in exactly the same way that he allegedly turned technology against those he ordered killed two weeks ago. So says Jim Lewis, director of the technology and public policy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C., public policy think tank.
"It's a judo maneuver," Lewis told Newsbytes. "He's been able to exploit some of our vulnerabilities. But the same stuff that he's using gives us vulnerabilities that we can exploit. That's what we've got to look for."
The federal government is looking. During the past two days, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft has been testifying before members of Congress, urging them to pass the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2001, which would, among other things, relax restrictions on wiretapping suspected terrorists while easing rules on obtaining phone and Internet records.
It's a proposal that has drawn widespread support, but also has drawn flak from several quarters, including some of the congressmen to whom Ashcroft spoke.
One, Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., expressed eagerness to give law agents more tools to track down bin Laden and other suspected terrorists. But he also expressed fear that information could be used in inappropriate ways once obtained by authorities. Frank made specific reference to a dirty-tricks campaign against Martin Luther King by former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.
Having failed to find criminal evidence to use against King, Frank said, Hoover instead used information gained through surveillance to personally embarrass and publicly humiliate the civil rights leader.
The attorney general's request also raises the specter of Carnivore, the powerful software that FBI allows agents - if they have proper warrants - to spy on e-mail and Internet communications.
The Electronic Privacy Information Center is among those worried that Ashcroft's anti-terrorism platform might be rushed through Congress because of the looming threat of terrorism, even though the privacy-rights implications of the law for have not been sufficiently worked out.
CSIS analyst Lewis said he understands, but he also dismisses those concerns, even while he acknowledges that surveillance abuses in the late 1960s and early 1970s were true problems. Laws have been passed since those turbulent times, he says, and they effectively offset such threats.
"Having been in the government for 12 years, I know they observe these (laws) very strictly," said Lewis, who once was in charge of encryption policy for the U.S. Commerce Department. "And so, yes, if it was the 1960s, we should have concerns. But under the laws we have now, I don't think those concerns are justified.
"I'm not worried about these new technologies," Lewis added. "We need to find ways to use them to our advantage."
Certainly, that's what bin Laden does, Lewis said. Various reports, which Lewis takes to be true, indicate that the exiled Saudi millionaire no longer uses the satellite telephones he once relied on to communicate with his terrorist cells, because U.S. surveillance intercepted some of his calls just before the U.S. cruise missiles were launched on his training camps in 1998.
Instead, Lewis said, bin Laden relies on couriers who take CD-ROMs or floppy disks from bin Laden's computers, traveling out of the country to meet with other emissaries. Using a primitive method of encryption called steganography, bin Laden's messages to his followers are hidden inside other messages on the disks. Once they are decoded, they can be sent out around the world over the Internet, in a manner that makes it difficult if not impossible to trace them directly back to bin Laden.
Nonetheless, there are continuing reports that bin Laden may still occasionally use e-mail himself, and there was word Monday that he had sent a personal message by fax to an Arab TV station urging Muslims in Pakistan to fight a holy war against "America's crusader forces."
The more he does that sort of thing, the better, Lewis suggested.
The worst thing that the U.S. could possibly do would be to try to cut off the terrorist leader's ability to utilize the technology that keeps him in contact with his far-flung allies, the analyst said. Tracking bin Laden's moves through Internet and telecommunications surveillance is probably the best chance investigators have of pinpointing his whereabouts, Lewis said.
"He's not always going to be able to encrypt everything," Lewis said. "So when he goes onto the financial network to transfer money, when his operatives talk on the phone in the clear or send e-mail in the clear, these are opportunities for us. Even just knowing that there is a certain pattern of messages being sent, that gives us an advantage in figuring out the structure of the network."
These seem to be the sorts of ideas that lie behind Ashcroft's anti-terrorism proposal. Ashcroft, testifying before the House Judiciary Committee Monday, assured House members that the plan would not expand the law, just allow it "to grow as technology grows." Current law, he said, restricts investigators to tactics that were effective in the days when criminal used only analog communications technologies. But those days, Ashcroft says, are gone.
"Our proposal would allow a federal court to issue a single order that would apply to all providers in a communications chain, including those outside the region where the court is located," Ashcroft testified Monday.
"We need speed in identifying and tracking down terrorists. Time is of the essence," Ashcroft said. "The ability of law enforcement to trace communications into different jurisdictions without obtaining an additional court order can be the difference between life and death for American citizens."
Not everyone believes that Ashcroft and the Bush administration have only terrorists in mind in their efforts to extend the reach of surveillance, however.
U.S. Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., questioned Monday whether the Justice Department was "seeking to take advantage of" the terrorist attacks by requesting investigative powers that Congress has previously refused to allow.
"We see many, many provisions in the proposal that have nothing to do with fighting terrorism," Barr said.
David Sobel, general counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C., has similar concerns, though he stops short of making allegations about motives. He disagrees with the contention of CSIS's Lewis, however, that current laws will provide suitable protections against abuse of expanded federal surveillance powers.
"That's a novel position," Sobel said. "I guess it's explained by the fact that (Lewis) was in the government for a long time. Nobody outside of government feels that way."
He said he is concerned by what he indicates is a certain opaqueness shrouding the anti-terrorism measures being pushed by Ashcroft.
"I think it needs more explanation," Sobel said. "That's one of the problems right now. It's not entirely clear what the implications of these changes would be. And I think there does need to be more opportunity to get a better understanding of what the real implications might be."
The implications don't just extend to the current war against terrorism, Sobel indicated.
"They are talking about their needs with respect to a terrorism investigation, but they don't seem interested in limiting the new powers to only those investigations," he said.
"This is not about just today, but it's looking ahead to the continued convergence of technology and the development of new technologies," he said. "That's why this is a complicated issue that requires some time. Because we're talking about a quickly evolving environment and we need to fully understand the implications of changes to the legal framework."
Lewis agrees that care needs to be taken that any changes to the surveillance laws do not go too far.
But at the same time, he said, he thinks that as a society, we've gone "squeamish" about technologies like Carnivore. "I think we can do this in a balanced way that will increase security without damaging civil liberties," Lewis said. They must be used, but intelligently, he said, because they are essential in a fight against the likes of bin Laden.
"There is this sort of instinctive fear that it's a new technology therefore it must be bad, let's squash it," he said. "But what we ought to be doing is thinking another way. (bin Laden's) is a real hard network to penetrate, and we've got a real opportunity as soon as he comes onto the international network.
"When he goes onto the Internet or when he goes onto the phone network, he's on a network that we control," Lewis said. "If we can find the right ways to monitor him and discover him we can turn that on him and get advantage from it. "He is as dependent on that network as we are, and that's where we can start to get into his activities," he added. "We can do it back to him. And I hope it works. I think it will."
The Electronic Privacy Information Center has published a detailed, eight-page critique of the Ashcroft proposal at http://www.epic.org/privacy/terrorism/ATA_analysis.pdf.
The Center for Strategic and International Studies in at http://www.csis.org . Attorney General Ashcroft's remarks to the House Judiciary Committee are at http://www.usdoj.gov/ag/agcrisisremarks9_24.htm.
Reported by Newsbytes.com, http://www.newsbytes.com .
Reposted 18:17 CST
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Kevin Featherly, a former managing editor at Washington Post Newsweek Interactive, is a Minnesota journalist who covers politics and technology. He has authored or contributed to five previous books, Guide to Building a Newsroom Web Site (1998), The Wired Journalist (1999), Elements of Language (2001), Pop Music and the Press (2002) and Encyclopedia of New Media (2003). His byline has appeared in Editor & Publisher, the San Francisco Chronicle, the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Online Journalism Review and Minnesota Law and Politics, among other publications. In 2000, he was a media coordinator for Web, White & Blue, the first online presidential debates.
Copyright 2004, by Kevin Featherly