Computing Applications Forum


  1. Don't Take Civil Liberties in the Name of National Security
  2. Spare Me the Paranoia
  3. Taking Responsibility for Worms and Viruses
  4. Who's Research Is Unethical?
  5. Dual Parallelism in the Grid
  6. Author

The ACM, as stated in the masthead of every issue of Communications, is "an international scientific and educational organization … serving both professional and public interests…" This statement of the purpose and goals of the ACM is why I’m a member.

In that context, I found Neil Munro’s "From Washington" column ("Too Much of a Good Thing," Jan. 2002) an astounding piece, having neither scientific nor educational merit, as well as dubious value for either professional or public interest.

Munro apparently believes there is such a thing as "overzealous enforcement of civil liberties laws." This as an end in itself is rather chilling to those of us who actually subscribe to the stated ACM Code of Ethics (section 1.7) concerning respect for the privacy of others as a moral imperative. The exception is solely "… in cases where it is evidence for the violation of law, organizational regulations, or this Code. In these cases, the nature or contents of that information must be disclosed only to proper authorities."

In the Zacarias Moussaoui case, cited by Munro, the FBI was denied permission to access private data not by the custodians of the data but by the custodians of the law itself, the judiciary, because they lacked probable cause, which Munro cavalierly dismisses as "jargon." While it is certainly possible that international readers might be unfamiliar with it, Munro, who lives and works in the U.S. capital would do well to reacquaint himself with the U.S. Constitution, and specifically the Fourth Amendment, which reads, in its entirety, "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

Next, Munro inexplicably cites the case of Wen Ho Lee and allegations of his leak of nuclear weapons data—charges eventually dropped. Munro writes: "Although such weapons can destroy cities and a million lives in an instant, Lee’s privacy remained a higher priority." Is it possible that Munro is unaware that Lee, a U.S. citizen, is a free man? Could he possibly be unaware of the apology made by U.S. District Judge James A. Parker when Lee finally had his day in court? Said Judge Parker: "As a member of the third branch [of government], the U.S. courts, I sincerely apologize to you, Dr. Lee, for the unfair manner in which you were held by the executive branch."

Lee pleaded guilty to a single felony count of mishandling classified data and was never charged with espionage—an essential fact Munro omits. Even in the expurgated version related by Munro, the essential facts are an argument against the wholesale auction of civil liberties, not for the expansion of governmental powers. Ultimately, the government did not prove its case against Lee, despite the shameful and legally questionable tactics used.

Finally, while Munro offers the opinion that "these various laws did not merely create legal barriers to information sharing, they created bureaucratic incentives to prevent information sharing." It’s odd that the FBI itself tells things this way: "The FBI stated to Congress that it conducted vigorous investigation of Moussaoui upon learning of his detention in August 2001 on immigration charges, including seizing his computer, contacting foreign officials for additional information, and seeking a number of authorities under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to conduct further investigation. In addition, information about Moussaoui was shared throughout the intelligence community prior to September 11th." (see www.fbi.gov/short/moussaoui.htm).

I find Munro’s column both factually and logically flawed and unworthy of publication in Communications. It ignores both the ACM Code of Ethics and the U.S. Constitution and the principles on which each is based. One of the authors of the latter document, Benjamin Franklin, once wrote: "They who would give up an essential liberty for temporary security, deserve neither liberty or security." It is a lesson some of us have yet to learn.

Edward J. Beroset
Chapel Hill, NC

I am happy to find that Communications doesn’t restrict its columns to so-called computer-related topics. However, I completely disagree with Munro’s conclusions. His central idea—that law enforcement authorities are severely hampered by outdated and inappropriate civil liberties statutes—is fallacious and extremely dangerous. The FBI and the CIA each has a long history of nefarious activities in which obeying the law was the least of their concerns. It is also a complete lie these agencies had their budgets slashed and activities curtailed during the 1960s and 1970s. The police, especially those in large urban cities, are no better.

In 1965, the CIA played a central role in the overthrow of President Sukarno of Indonesia, enabling General Suharto to come to power as the county’s dictator. A July 2001 BBC News story exposed the existence of a little-publicized U.S. State Department history book detailing the U.S. role in this campaign. A CIA spokesperson indicated the shipment of the books to government printing offices was accidental and that all copies were being recalled. The recall was prompted by the damaging evidence of just how deeply the CIA was illegally involved in the operation.

In 1973, the CIA played a central role in the overthrow of President Salvadore Allende of Chile. This operation brought the dictator Augusto Pinochet to power.

Most of the time, police misconduct is covered up outright or merely distorted. The few cases that get national or even local attention do so in spite of the mass media rather than because of it. Several outrageous examples come to mind: the beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles; the torture of Abner Louima in New York; and the surveillance of protestors during the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia. At the RNC, the police infiltrated the dissenting organizations, wiretapped their phones, photographed people as they attended meetings, and finally evicted the protestors from their meeting place on the trumped-up charge of "fire code violations." None of this was legal, but that mattered little to the police.

With regard to the FBI, I find it difficult to believe it could arrest Zacarias Moussaoui but couldn’t produce enough evidence to warrant tapping his phone and/or searching his computer. Moreover, the fact that the FBI did arrest him, that he was known to have ties to Osama bin Laden’s Al Queda organization, that French intelligence reported he was connected to terrorism, and that employees at a flight school alerted the FBI, should have been ample reason to beef up airport security. Rather than blaming overzealous civil libertarians, I wonder how much blame the FBI bears for failing to act on such information.

These are just a few examples of how the FBI, CIA, and police really operate. Munro’s claim that these agencies have been "shackled by civil libertarians" is nothing less than a complete reversal of their sordid histories. Munro’s call for an official sanction of their methods would legalize what most people consider illegal and intolerable conduct. In effect, it is an outright call for full-blown fascism under the faulty guise of protection.

John Jaros
Quakertown, PA

I am writing to complain in the strongest possible terms about Munro’s column. Regardless of whether or not you agree with his political opinions, you must surely agree that polemical material of such a nature has no place in the kind of journal Communications aspires to be.

C. J. Date
Healdsburg, CA

I was saddened to see Munro refer to probable cause as "jargon" being overzealously used by civil libertarians to inhibit law enforcement activities. Far from being jargon, probable cause is a constitutional requirement enshrined in the Fourth Amendment. The authors of the Bill of Rights did not include the probable cause requirement to stifle legitimate law enforcement activities but to guarantee that law-abiding citizens would not be subject to capricious searches and prosecutions. If the U.S.’s founders are guilty of being overzealous civil libertarians for enacting the Fourth Amendment, so be it.

Additionally troubling is Munro’s use of sneer quotes around the term "probable cause" and his clear disdain for existing laws incorporating the constitutional probable cause requirement. Although law enforcement officials might have to do less legwork if we dispensed with constitutional jargon such as probable cause, freedom of speech, and the right of the people to peaceably assemble, making such changes to the U.S. Constitution would make citizens neither freer nor safer. A better solution would be to improve enforcement of existing laws that already prohibit and punish a wide range of criminal activity within the bounds established the Constitution’s precious jargon.

Robert Plotkin
Concord, MA

I have found the "From Washington" column informative, apprising me of the interplay of politics and technology. Then came Munro’s January column.

Rather than presenting news, Munro starts out with a few apparent facts ("It appears the FBI discovered…") and then goes on to present opinions and supposition.

I pay my annual ACM membership to try to keep current with my field, not read political rants.

Rick Simkin
Chicago, IL

For some reason, my January issue of Communications contained a right-wing rant against civil liberties by someone from the National Journal. I trust this was some kind of printer’s error and Communications has not been taken over. It’s amusing to contemplate National Journal readers finding an opinion piece on, say, UML 2.0 in their magazine.

Thomas W. Moran
Saratoga, CA

I’d like to make the opposite argument Munro’s makes: The ease the FBI obtains wiretaps and search warrants has made the FBI accustomed to their use. Like many large organizations, when denied the use of a common tool, it doesn’t know what to do (except perhaps, whine).

Listening to the FBI (and its apologists) account for its behavior is painful. Blaming the "overzealous enforcement of civil liberties laws" does not remove the facts that fundamental police work was not done in the Wen Ho Lee case or Zacarias Moussaoui’s. Perhaps a case could be made for a different balance of civil liberties vs. police power; Munro did not make it.

Hugh Kawabata
Princeton, NJ

Neil Munro Responds:
Here is my column’s conclusion: "We won’t know who is right until the newly energized FBI and CIA (armed with expanded police powers) either destroy or miss terrorist groups, and either minimize abuses or exploit their new powers for illegitimate goals. But we do know that overzealous enforcement of civil liberties laws will eventually exact a price—including crimes and expanded police powers."

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Spare Me the Paranoia

I was extremely disappointed that Communications would publish Brock Meeks’s column ("Blanking on Rebellion," Nov. 2001). A piece based on half-truths, lies, and paranoia does not have a place in a journal for a professional organization, especially one representing a science.

In the column’s introduction, Meeks claims we are headed toward a "pseudo-police state" and casts the Office of Homeland Defense as the vanguard. Most Americans see the new office as what it is: the awaking of a complacent people who have long ignored domestic security. Most citizens, unlike Meeks, also realize you can have increased security without compromising freedom. You sacrifice only convenience. Logical fallacy—unacceptable consequences.

Meeks also waits to admit that he blatantly lied in his opening paragraph. Milliron was not "fingered" by a surveillance camera, and his questioning was not the "a result of marrying face recognition software to surveillance cameras." Milliron was spotted when his picture appeared on the cover of a magazine. The magazine could have been running an article about pedestrians and published Milliron’s picture; the result would have been the same. But Meeks blames the software and the camera because the article in the magazine was about the camera. Logical fallacy—guilt by association.

Meeks then quotes Milliron: "It made me feel like a criminal." Anyone questioned by authorities about a crime might feel like a criminal. That is not a reason to not let police question suspects. Logical fallacy—appeal to pity. As for Meeks’s great Blank Rebellion, I haven’t read or heard of it and I have been searching. It probably isn’t so great. Logical fallacy—aggrandizement.

Meeks writes that surveillance cameras will turn everyone into a suspect. Too late. Everyone is a suspect already. When police patrol the streets or stand guard at an event, they are looking for criminals. If you happen to match a description broadcast over a radio or briefed before a shift, you warrant special attention. Meeks offers up his own personal experience as a deadbeat dad as a failure of the system. Logical fallacy—complex question (two unrelated points). In doing so he actually shows that attention should not be paid so much to the cameras and software, but to the justice system itself. Whether you are "fingered" by a camera or by a picture in a magazine, it makes no difference. We should all be looking for and fixing the flaws in the justice system, not ripping down cameras or trying to hide from them.

I welcome the use of surveillance cameras. I realize that law enforcement in the U.S. has trouble fighting crime. Officers and agents are consistently under-equipped. Anything to make their work more efficient is good. I hope my local police department puts a camera on my street soon. For some reason some of the locals use the street I live on as a local dragstrip. The neighborhood kids have told me they are afraid to play outside for fear of being hit. I know the police cannot put a patrol car on my corner every day and night and wait for someone to come speeding by. A police camera would be an effective deterrent.

While this kind of paranoia and illogic pass in a newspaper or on television, it is not acceptable in Communications. I expect a higher standard. If someone has an issue to raise, raise it—with logic and facts, not pleas and fallacies. Contrary to Meeks, his column does not deserve to "be read with new awareness and regard."

Jason Funk
Pacifica, CA

The most important issue of privacy is Big Brother where "Big" means Brother cannot be held accountable. In other words, whenever citizens are required to give up privacy, the organizations or persons able to invade this privacy need to be maximally accountable. In the case of the fight against terrorism, this means independent parties must monitor the (ab)use of the invasion of privacy needed to provide important services.

Security issues may make it necessary to not disclose such wiretapping operations, but not forever; not to persons passing security checks, not to courts when disputes arise. Therefore, maximized transparency is an excellent option to negate many risks associated with a lack of privacy. The system must at least keep logs, have randomized inspection by an impartial parties, and be open to an increasingly wider audience as time passes. Timing should be such that abuse is unlikely to pay off. IT is a key enabler to make this work (in the sense that a local sheriff can no longer make a speeding ticket of the mayor’s wife disappear).

Of course, transparency will not solve all privacy issues (such as in the parts of the world with higher levels of social control). Once the decision is taken to reduce privacy, transparency will reduce associated risks significantly.

Paul Valckenaers
Leuven, Belgium

Meeks’s column is one huge non sequitur. His criticism of face recognition systems (especially FaceIt) hinges on two main examples. The first is the case of Bob Milliron, falsely suspected of being a deadbeat dad. The implication is that this was a fault and major flaw in the FaceIt system. In fact, the false accusation had nothing to do with the system, except that it took the picture. The picture was then purchased (under the Freedom of Information Act) by a magazine, which published it without Milliron’s consent. A women saw the picture and accused Milliron of being her deadbeat ex-husband.

Under our draconian deadbeat dad laws, the police had no option but to arrest Milliron for questioning, on the unsubstantiated claim of one person. To blame this on FaceIt is like blaming a gun for a murder, making it easy to exonerate or overlook the real perpetrators—the magazine that published the photo and the woman, in this case. It would be as logical to propose that news media be prohibited from publishing photos of people taken in public places as to ban FaceIt from taking photos in public places—both ludicrous ideas.

Meeks’ second major example of the evil of FaceIt concerns its proposed use in Virginia Beach to help find runaway children. His sole objection is his perception of the shortfalls of the whole child welfare system, which he criticizes without any thesis that FaceIt will make it any better or worse. What we have left is simply the typical media knee-jerk objections to anything that might make law enforcement more effective and better protect the citizenry from the criminals.

Bob Rinker
Orange Park, FL

Meeks Responds:
Rinker states my column is "one huge non sequitur," then focuses on two points that bother him.

He underscores my point: that what is supposed to be a transparent technology as far as the average Joe or Jane is concerned was immediately turned on its ear and used wrongly.

The ethics of the media’s involvement in this story is worthy of rigorous debate, but how this story played out isn’t nearly as important as why it played out. The brutal truth is that if this kind of low-level event happened so quickly it begs only the question: What future abuses await us?

Rinker marshals facts to support my case when he points out proposed use of face recognition software in Virginia Beach. That the child welfare system is screwed up is beyond argument; that a technology supposedly used for the capture and detection of criminals would be pressed into duty to nab runaways and serve to exacerbate woes inherent in the child welfare system is criminal in and of itself. We do not know (and I did not write) that FaceIt will be deployed in Virginia Beach; I do know, however, that any face recognition system used to nab runaways will not make the situation any better.

Funk protests about the term "pseudo-police state," but that’s what we’ve become, like it or not. In rapid succession, the administration has suspended or watered down constitutional rights we all held prior to 9/11.

People can now be rounded up and held basically on a whim for an indefinite time.

Defense lawyers have been stripped of the right to confer confidentially with their clients, and National Guard units now patrol the airports.

The intelligence community has been given leeway to snoop on people inside the U.S., a move prohibited until the U.S. Patriot Act.

Some may choose to accept the U.S. is a police state. I don’t. The last I checked dissent is still a valued constitutional right in America.

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Taking Responsibility for Worms and Viruses

Hal Berghel quotes sources that estimate the damages from recent worms and viruses at over $10 billion and adds "we’re talking serious money" ("Digital Village," Dec. 2001).

He analyzes as a source buffer overflows due to sloppy, imprudent coding. This is all déj`a vu, though not checking for an array bound after more than 30 years of academic education, performing extensive QA, and shipping such software junk to a worldwide audience remains incomprehensible.

Another pervasive source is the executable attachments supported by Microsoft that operate in flaky sandboxes or can do things that should never be allowed in the first place. The fact that Microsoft did not get into high gear to stop these flaws in its designs is somewhat of a mystery explained only by the greater mystery of why the company has not been prosecuted. In any other industry it would be swamped by class-action lawsuits, especially in light of its near monopoly.

The ultimate mystery is why organizations such as ACM and IEEE have not swung into action. Consider the ACM, which discusses professional ethics, behavior, and responsibility. The "Inside Risks" column has appeared for as long as I can remember. Given that the Department of Justice is too timid, does not have the technical expertise or whatever reason it gives for failing to force responsible conduct of Microsoft, it seems to me that ACM and IEEE have the moral obligation to step into the vacuum.

Dennis de Champeaux
San Jose, CA

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Who’s Research Is Unethical?

Let us not arrest individuals for their research work no matter what their field of inquiry" writes Vir V. Phoha ("Viewpoint," Dec. 2001). That would exonerate the biologists, in Nazi Germany who used as experimental animals people condemned for belonging to a particular outlawed group. It would also exonerate the Tuskegee experimenters who observed syphilis patients degenerate, though suitable treatments were known and available to restore their health.

During the 1950s, I heard a discussion on BBC Radio where someone asked: "Are there any places in science where signs should be put up saying: ‘Keep Out, This Is God’s Property’?" One of the panelists answered, "I think there may be places in science where signs should be put up saying: ‘Keep Out, This Is Not God’s Property’."

How exactly this applies to DMCA I am not sure, but I am sure Phoha would rewrite the sentence I quoted.

John A. Wills
San Francisco, CA

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Dual Parallelism in the Grid

Fran Berman, in her "Viewpoint" ("From TeraGrid to Knowledge Grid," Nov. 2001), defines the first decade of this century as the "Data Decade," where "data growth is outpacing computational growth, and many of the most important advances in science and engineering will result from the tight coupling of computation and online analysis and synthesis of massive data collections."

Berman has indeed captured a dominant trend in IT. The challenges and rewards that lie ahead can be illustrated by drawing parallels with Moore’s and Metcalfe’s Laws. On the one hand, Moore’s Law predicts that processing power doubles every 18 months (disk storage and network bandwidth increase at a faster pace). On the other hand, Metcalfe’s Law states that the usefulness of a network grows as the square of the number of users.

Thus, we can observe a dual parallelism. First, the growth of the TeraGrid can be related to the hardware technology advances predicted by Moore’s Law. Second, the ability of the Knowledge Grid to produce information useful to an audience reaching critical mass parallels Metcalfe’s Law.

Gabriel Mateescu
National Canadian Research Council, Ottawa, Canada

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