Less freedom in the new digital world?

Following up on last week's Internet Kill Switch column Mark Gibbs discusses some reader feedback and wonders whether we're being softened up for a brave new digital world.

Last week's column on the Internet Kill Switch generated a lot of feedback (take a moment and vote on whether the president should have a kill switch.

Before we go further I need to clear up one thing I wrote: I wasn't suggesting that right-wingers were behind the bill. What I was suggesting was that hardcore right-wingers (neocons such as Dick Cheney and Karl Rove) would most likely be in favor of the bill. The fact that known liberals, one of them Democrat and the other Republican, are the source of the bill is bizarre to say the least (it is also suspicious).

Reader Anon, in an online reply to the column, asked, "It all hinges on the definition of 'United States critical infrastructure information system or network' then, doesn't it?"

Reader Alex Breeding (Arligton, Texas) is well versed on this topic having authored a paper for the SANS Institute that, in part, delved into what the government defines as critical infrastructure. He concludes that it covers just about everything that matters: roads, food production, health services, police and fire departments … the list is long and comprehensive.

Anon's brother, curiously also called Anon, opined online that such a broad definition of critical infrastructure exists "perhaps to make the area of influence as wide as imaginable. Total government control as in Soviet Russia. Concentration camps may not be necessary, just shut down the colo [and the] traffic and you can kill opposition/competition forever."

A good friend, also preferring to be called "Anon", pointed out a possible reason for this ostensibly ridiculous bill being "kited": it's a way of softening up public perception so when there's a need to curtail specific Internet-mediated communications it can be pitched as being in the national interest and nobody will be surprised.

Anon theorizes that, should there be, for example, the beginnings of a serious run on the dollar, then shutting down "critical infrastructure" (which would include the banks and financial institutions) would allow the government breathing room by stopping transactions from being cleared. He refers to this shutdown as "the Big 404" because your bank, your broker and all of the other financial services you deal with would suddenly not be available for a day or two while the feds implement a control strategy.

Sound far-fetched? Well, maybe not so much when you consider other governmental scheming that's afoot. For a start there's the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA, which you most likely haven't heard about. That's not surprising as the negotiations for this international trade agreement between the G8 and others countries have been underway mostly in secret since 2007!

According to a report in the London Telegraph last year, ACTA would permit "IPods, mobile phones and laptops [to] be examined by airport customs officials for illegal downloads" without customs having cause. Until ACTA is ratified we won't know what is actually being agreed to and by then it will be too late. What happened to transparency?

Or how about the Obama administration's position on warrantless wiretapping? In a motion asking the court to dismiss the Electronic Frontier Foundation's case against the NSA, the administration is claiming that not only is the whole program a state secret but that the government is immune to litigation for what it has done.

As the EFF points out, the then-Sen. Obama lamented on the campaign trail that the Bush Administration "invoked a legal tool known as the 'state secrets' privilege more than any other previous administration to get cases thrown out of civil court."

A jaded, suspicious person might conclude from all of this scheming and opacity that when it comes to technology the government is in the process of assuming greater authority and softening us up for a brave new digital world where we have a lot less control and freedom. Are we just going to let that happen? Can we stop it?

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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