Imagine dedicating your life to sharing information. Imagine you’ve gone so far, in fact, as to organize an annual event about information sharing specifically related to technology and ways to make it secure.
Now imagine a small army of federal agents busting into your conference room to haul your tail off to prison for life without possibility of parole. That’s the nightmare scenario some local techies and computer hackers are afraid of if U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft gets his way on the antiterrorism bill.
“[The antiterrorism bill] makes PhreakNIC a terrorist event, and I can be put away for life without parole in a federal pen for organizing a free event we started as a public service,” says Dru Myers, a member of a regional group of computer hackers and security specialists known as South East 2600.
PhreakNIC is the group’s annual event in Nashville that aims to demystify the term “hacker” and expand awareness of computer and Internet security issues. The first weekend in November will mark PhreakNIC’s fifth year. Myers says the event is about “learning why hacking doesn’t equal criminal activity, learning about free and open alternatives to Microsoft and commercial software, learning how to protect yourself from computer viruses, spammers, and info theft.”
The proposed antiterrorism act is a 25-page bill designed to give the U.S. Justice Department more flexibility to conduct electronic surveillance and to detain suspected terrorists. But critics, including some lawmakers and the ACLU, say that the bill, which could reach the president’s desk as early as this week, could trample American civil liberties.
“This bill has simply missed the mark of maximizing security and, at the same time, minimizing any adverse effects on America’s freedoms,” Laura W. Murphy, director of the ACLU’s Washington office, said last week after Senate passage of the bill. “Most Americans do not recognize that Congress has just passed a bill that would give the government expanded power to invade our privacy, imprison people without due process and punish dissent.”
Even some congressional lawmakers who see the bill’s clear weaknesses are supporting it anywayin the face of war and near unanimity on the issue. “Despite my misgivings, I have acquiesced in some of the administration’s proposals, because it is important to preserve national unity in this time of crisis and to move the legislative process forward,” Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, said last week.
For those who make their livings in the computer security business, fear is widespread. That’s because advising or assisting someone in committing a computer crime would be illegal under the bill. Myers fears for PhreakNIC, then, because part of the convention is about discovering and fixing computer security holes. The question then becomes: What if someone does something illegal with information obtained from the meeting? Who’s responsible?
“So what murderer/rapist/mobster do you want to let out of jail to make room for me? And all of my friends?” Myers says. “And the 500 or so other ‘terrorists’ who will attend? You know, gamer kids, their parents, students, etc. Then, of course, there’s the whole violation of free speech and the right to peaceably assemble issue.”
In fact, if PhreakNIC is considered a terrorist activity, law enforcement may be arresting a few of its own. Law enforcement officials regularly attend the event because it showcases security issues of interest to them.
Perhaps the biggest problem with the antiterrorism act is that its adoption is being pushed by a government still far too close to the assaults of Sept. 11 to think with a collectively clear head about the potential consequences.
The hotheaded impulse to push the antiterrorism act through Congress without any real thought or debate is the same kind demonstrated by some Americans immediately following the attacks, when people of Arab descent were targeted for racial slurs and racially motivated violence.
The new fear of terrorism that’s driven the inclusion of nonterrorist crimes in the antiterrorism bill is nonsensical. To quote Ben Franklin, “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
The unfortunate side effect of the “temporary safety” is that, all too often, government provides us not so much with additional safety, but new things to fear. Rather than fearing suicidal terrorists with the taste of hot blood in their mouths diving at us from the air, we could very well fear the eyes of our own government.
As for Myers and PhreakNIC, this year’s event is going ahead as planned. “If we had anything to hide, the event wouldn’t be listed as ‘free and open to the public,’ ” he says. “And we wouldn’t invite our law enforcement pals.”