Computers, Information Technology, the Internet, Ethics, Society and Human Values

Philip Pecorino, Ph.D.

Queensborough Community College,  CUNY

Chapter 7 Secrecy and Security


Few would want to disagree with the claim that certain information should be kept secret.  Some kept confidential.   National defense information might fall under the first heading along with trade secrets.  Health and financial information would fall under the second heading. Governments do not want vital and critical information accessed by real or potential enemies and companies would not want their trade secrets known by competitors.  Individuals would not want their personal health matters and financial situation or status known to just anyone.  Just what should be available to individuals, groups, institutions, corporations, businesses and others to provide security for their information?

Employers and institutions need to safeguard the information of those in their employ and of those who provide personal information to them.  How far must they go to provide for the security of that information?  When placing personal information into information networks what security measures are needed?   Permitting unauthorized access, intentionally or otherwise, to personal information exposes those whose personal, financial and health information it is to harms in a number of ways including fraudulent use of their identities (identity theft) or use in exposes intended to harm them.

Balancing the need for secrecy and security of information with the need for providing for the security of the nation and for its institutions on the part of government is no easy task.  When there is a conflict between the two needs how is it to be resolved?  What of the competing values?

Banks hold items for clients in safe deposit boxes and funds in vaults.  Keys to these areas are not handed over to unauthorized agents.  Government seeking access to vaults and safe deposit boxes must present their case to a court and argue that the conditions are met for granting access and then it is an access limited by the order of the court.    What about information that people value as they do their funds and the contents of safe deposit boxes?

What is to be done to protect information?  What if those wanting to protect that information are terrorists or other form of criminal enterprise or threats to national security?  How far should government go to halt or stop the development or distribution of encryption entities?

What of individuals wishing to protect their identities in cyberspace when communicating or depositing information or data?  Is that always, sometimes, or never a morally good thing when communicating with others?

The Clinton administration has adopted the chip, which would allow law enforcement agencies with court warrants to read the Clipper codes and eavesdrop on terrorists and criminals. But opponents say that, if this happens, the privacy of law-abiding individuals will be a risk. They want people to be able to use their own scramblers, which the government would not be able to decode. If the opponents get their way, however, all communications on the information highway would be immune from lawful interception. In a world threatened by international organized crime, terrorism, and rogue governments, this would be folly.
--Dorothy Denning, "The Clipper Chip will block crime," Newsday, Feb. 22, 1994

In his LA speech, Gore called the development of the NII "a revolution." And it is a revolutionary war we are engaged in here. Clipper is a last ditch attempt by the United States, the last great power from the old Industrial Era, to establish imperial control over cyberspace. If they win, the most liberating development in the history of humankind could become, instead, the surveillance system which will monitor our grandchildren's morality. We can be better ancestors than that.
--John Perry Barlow, "Jackboots on the Infobahn," Wired, April 1994

We are at one of those important cusp points in history. The technologies of networks and of encryption make it very easy for exciting new structures to develop (cryptoanarchy, privacy, transnational entities, persistent organizations, anonymous systems, digital banks). But the same technologies make it possible for a cyberspatial police state to develop. The race is on.
-- Tim May, "The Coming Police State," (March 1994)

Of course there are people who aren't prepared to trust the escrow agents, or the courts that issue warrants, or the officials who oversee the system, or anybody else for that matter. Rather than rely on laws to protect us, they say, let's make wiretapping impossible; then we'll be safe no matter who gets elected. This sort of reasoning is the long-delayed revenge of people who couldn't go to Woodstock because they had too much trig homework. It reflects a wide -- and kind of endearing -- streak of romantic high-tech anarchism that crops up throughout the computer world.
--Stewart Baker, "Don't Worry Be Happy: Why Clipper Is Good For You," Wired, June, 1994

READ: Cryptoanarchy

READ: Cryptoanarchy  Discussing

  • strong, unbreakable public key cryptography cryptography, exemplified by RSA (a public key algorithm) and  PGP (Pretty Good Privacy)
  • Digital mixes, or anonymous remailers, use crypto to create untraceable e-mail, which has many uses.
  • Digital pseudonyms, the creation of persistent network personas that cannot be forged by others and yet which are unlinkable to the "true names" of their owners,

READ: A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace by John Perry Barlow

Any people that would give up liberty for a little temporary safety deserves neither liberty nor safety”.


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Web Surfer's Caveat: These are class notes, intended to comment on readings and amplify class discussion. They should be read as such. They are not intended for publication or general distribution.                @copyright 2006 Philip A. Pecorino                       

Last updated 8-2006                                                              Return to Table of Contents