How 9-11 Will Change Cyberspace

After last week's terrorist attacks, government and FBI officials immediately began chipping away at our digital privacy in the name of national security. "Encryption" was blamed for our lack of intelligence about the attack, and Sen. Judd Gregg subsequently called for a prohibition on encryption products that don't provide back doors for government surveillance. As if terrorists are going to use government-compliant forms of encryption software anyway.

Meanwhile, Wired News reports that anonymous techs at major ISPs like AOL and Earthlink describe how the FBI came calling last week with Carnivore devices (also called DCS1000), surveillance hardware that sits on an ISP's backbone and monitors every data packet that comes and goes. And the ISPs let them install the devices without protest. Carnivore monitors network traffic, which means that even if you use PGP or some other encryption on your e-mail, the system will still be able to figure out where you're sending data. If, for instance, you're e-mailing your friends in the Middle East, Carnivore will take note. And this kind of information could be enough to make you a target for greater surveillance.

A lot of this hysteria grows out of long-standing fears of "cyberterrorism," which a series of 1990 Pentagon studies claimed could bring the country to a standstill. Major utilities like water, power, and gas are run by centralized computing facilities that could be hacked and controlled remotely. No one seems to have noticed that this problem could be solved by implementing heterogeneous, decentralized computing systems, which handle many forms of information on different kinds of computers. It might be difficult, but no more so than putting spook-ridden back doors into all of your encrypted crap and regulating the traffic at all major ISPs.

People are also freaking out because rumor has it that bad guys like terrorist poster boy Osama bin Laden have been hiding their battle plans using steganography. With steganography, cryptographers hide data in the pixels of a photograph or image. Allegedly, bin Laden was using steganography to hide his nefarious plans in innocuous photos posted on sports and porn Web sites. All of this is technically possible. Terrorists could be communicating covertly online every day.

But why are security experts lobbying for brute-force surveillance methods that have little chance of working effectively anyway? It will be impossible to crack every code, to keep track of every message online, no matter how much surveillance we implement.

As social critic Slovaj Zizek pointed out in a brilliant editorial posted on a socialist listserv last week, the nation is caught in that surreal, amorphous moment between our recent trauma and its symbolic impact. Zizek compared this period to "the brief moment after we are deeply cut, and before the full extent of the pain strikes us." In the absence of control, in the throes of fear and pain, we experience a vacuum in meaning itself. Nothing makes sense. As if we were drowning, we reach for any meanings we can to buoy us, to keep us afloat. And inevitably, deprived of rationality and meaning, we return to the safe confines of infantile paranoia. Kill them all! Trust no one! Monitor their every move!

But the creepy thing is that this breakdown in reason is swaddled in the warm, communitarian rhetoric of protection and strength. Again and again we are exposed to images of destruction and loss; we are sent into a morass of meaninglessness; and then we are "rescued" by authority figures who promise better security and swift retribution.

The process works something like steganography. We're presented with a picture of security and strength, but it hides very dark data indeed. To restore our freedom, we will be deprived of it. To recover from senseless murder, we will need to perpetrate more of it. In the image of Bush's impassive face lurk the plans for a brutal and disgraceful war.

Personally, I'm most disgusted by what can only be called the aggressive sentimentalism in so many government and media responses to the terrorist attack. Commentators are using the sad stories of victims to whip the public up into a blood lust. We're being pushed to assign an ugly and violent meaning to our recent national trauma: that cruelty should beget cruelty; that an incredibly tragic loss of control should be met with an even greater loss of our personal liberties.

What covert messages are being broadcast when Bush talks about our "lost innocence"? What meanings is he trying to force on us? Don't stare at the nice picture. Read the data in the pixels.

Annalee Newitz ( is a surly media nerd who just got a public key. Her column also appears in Metro, San Jose's weekly newspaper.


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