September 11, 2001

The post-attack internet

... why the internet is important now.

by John Averell

In this high-technology era, terrorism can both be aided and mitigated by the internet.

Communication is the life-blood of business as well as terrorism. Email has become the fastest and most nearly anonymous medium of information. What helps terrorists is that the messages themselves can be encrypted in such a simple but unbreakable fashion that there is little to be learned from intercepted messages.

Anyone can download an encryption tool called PGP (for Pretty Good Privacy.) The system is based on "Public Key" encryption. The U.S. Government tried to limit the distribution of highly encrypted tools to foreign nationals, but that effort was doomed to failure. Anyone living in the U.S. could make a copy of the installation kit.

The NSA (National Security Agency) is capable of breaking almost any code, but the time required for good encryption is probably too long to make routine surveillance of all email feasible.

So between emails that can be routed around anonymously, and messages that can only be decoded by the recipient, terrorists have the capability of communicating at will around the world.

On the other hand, businesses are not fully utilizing internet capabilities. They certainly use email as a primary tool, and websites as advertising and sales media. But businessmen still make up a major fraction of air travel, both in seats and revenue. With the new air security measures, businessmen will not want to spend the time to travel from point to point or the risk to personnel.

Video-conferencing will become a major tool even for small businesses. Being able to hold meetings among several groups with local web cameras at each site will eliminate the expensive travel time. The MIT Media Lab has highly sophisticated video-conferencing sites that illustrate dramatically what can be done with big businesses.

In the next few years it is certain that businesses will learn how to use the internet to dramatically reduce the exposure to possible terrorist threats from travel. The additional expense will certainly be offset by time and travel expenses.

The downside of using the internet is the potential vulnerability to communication terrorism. Viruses have to be controlled and avoided. Server firewalls will be tightened up even more to deny access to terrorists.

Terrorist destruction of internet infrastructure can cause havoc. Fortunately, the nature of the world wide web is to find alternate paths to connect points, so it is difficult to shut down the internet completely. Secure and robust communications will continue to be a high priority effort throughout the world.

Editors' note: Dr. Averell wrote this article in the hours immediately following the terrorist attack on America on September 11th. Since that time the national press has done similar features on the same subject, including one in the Boston Globe -- that near-mirror Dr. Averell's original article. Such is the disadvantage of being a monthly.

October 5, 2001


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