1992-11-16 - Balancing National Interests

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From: gnu
Date: Mon, 16 Nov 92 01:47:48 PST
To: cypherpunks
Subject: Balancing National Interests
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Date: Sat, 14 Nov 1992 20:17:06 -0500
To: interesting_people@aurora.cis.upenn.edu
From: Dave Farber <farber@central.cis.upenn.edu>
Subject: from RISKS

Reprinted with permission ("do with it as you wish.  Granger") 

A "Viewpoint " piece in  The Institute, November 1992

Balancing National Interests

  The September/October issue of The Institute carried a front page story
reporting that the Federal Bureau of Investigation is promoting legislation
that would require all telephone systems to be designed in such a way that they
can be wiretapped by law enforcement officials.  The argument is that
wiretapping is a key tool in much of law enforcement, particularly in fields
such as drugs, racketeering, conspiracy and white collar crime, and that unless
care is taken in the design of future telecommunications systems, this tool may
become difficult or impossible to exercise.  To solve this problem the FBI is
promoting legislation that would establish design requirements on future
telephone systems.  Not surprisingly, civil liberties groups and telephone
companies are reported to be less than enthusiastic.

        While interesting and important in its own right, this controversy is
perhaps even more important as a symbol of a broader set of conflicts between a
number of important national interests. As a country, we want to promote:

  * Individual privacy (including the right of citizens and other residents of
the U.S. to keep personal records private, hold private communications with
others, and move about without being "tracked".)

  * Security for organizations (including protection of financial transactions,
and the ability to keep corporate data, plans, and communications

  * Effective domestic law enforcement (including the ability to perform
surveillance of legitimately identified suspects, and the ability to audit and
reconstruct fraudulent activities.)

  * Effective international intelligence gathering (including the ability to
monitor the plans and activities of organizations abroad that may pose a threat
to the U.S. or to other peaceful states and peoples.)

  * Secure world-wide reliable communications for U.S. diplomats and the
military, for U.S. business, and for U.S. citizens in their activities all
around the world (including the ability to maintain and gain access to secure,
reliable, communications channels.)

        Just as with most of our society's other fundamental objectives, these
objectives are in conflict.  You can not maximize them all because getting more
of some involves giving up some of others.  A dynamic tension must be created
that keeps the various objectives properly balanced.  That socially optimal
point of balance may change gradually over time as world conditions and our
society's values evolve.

        An electrical engineer who thinks for a moment about the problem of
achieving any particular specified balance among the various objectives I have
listed will quickly conclude that communications and information technology
design choices lie at the heart of the way in which many of the necessary
tradeoffs will be made.  We would like easy portable communications for all,
but doing that in a way that allows people to keep their legitimate travels
private poses significant design challenges.  Banks and other businesses would
like secure encrypted communications world-wide, but promoting the general
availability of such technologies all around the world severely complicates the
signal intelligence operations of intelligence organizations.

        The troubling thing about the FBI's legislative proposals is not that
they are being made, but that we lack a broader institutional context within
which to evaluate them.  In making such choices, we need to look systematically
at all the legitimate interests that are at stake in telecommunications and
information technology design choices, consider the ways in which technology
and the world are evolving, and integrate all these considerations to arrive at
a reasoned balance.  In the old days, if things got too far out of line in some
balance (for example, between freedom of the press and protection against
liable), the courts simply readjusted things and we went on.  Today, and
increasingly in the future, with many of these balances hard wired into the
basic design of our information and communication systems, it may be much
harder to readjust the balance after the fact.

        There are several organizations that should be working harder on these
issues.  On the government side the Telecommunication and Computing
Technologies Program in the Office of Technology Assessment should be doing
more systematic studies of these tradeoffs to help inform the Congress; The
National Telecommunications and Information Administration in the Department of
Commerce (or some appropriate interagency committee) should be doing similar
studies to develop more coherent and comprehensive executive branch policy; and
the Office of Policy and Plans in the Federal Communications Commission (which
is an independent regulatory agency not directly subject to executive branch
policy) should be giving these issues more attention so it can better support
the Commissioners when they confront such tradeoffs.  On the non-government
side, the Office of Computer and Information Technology at the National
Research Council might appropriately mount a comprehensive study.  There is an
ideal opportunity here for a private foundation to fund an independent
blue-ribbon commission.  Finally, the computer and telecommunications
industries, both individually and collectively through their industry
associations, should be taking more interest in how the country will strike
these all important balances.
                                                        M. Granger Morgan

M. Granger Morgan (F) is head of the Department of Engineering and Public
Policy at Carnegie Mellon University where he is also a Professor in the
Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and in the H. John Heinz III
School of Public Policy and Management.  He teaches and performs research on a
variety of problems in technology and public policy in which technical issues
are of central importance.