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.comment: Other Agendas - page 2

Thumping the Tub

  • November 28, 2001
  • By Dennis E. Powell

In the last week I have received email which asserts that there is a secret plot between the U.S. government and Microsoft Corporation to spy on us. It would be easy enough to laugh, shrug, and hit "delete," but it came from someone who to my knowledge is otherwise sane. I've seen messages in which people who can write very good code indulge in very bad thinking: "The World Trade Center was attacked so that George W. Bush and his [unspecified] cronies can make lots of oil money and seize our computers."

Every era has had its contingent of crazies; not long ago it was those who took to the bomb shelters out of fear of the Trilateral Commission. Paranoia has always existed. Beginning a generation or so ago, it even became a social skill in some circles.

The problem is, Linux has become one of those circles.

Stallman and Raymond at least go to the trouble of bolstering their positions with evidence. Whether you agree with them or not, they have done their homework. But a good many people active in Linux-related communications -- newsgroups, mailing lists, talkbacks to articles such as this one -- make their leap in hope that others will nod gravely in agreement without asking for evidence. Much that is being claimed is utterly devoid of evidence or even common sense. It's as if paranoid ravings are meant to produce the belongingness of which Abraham Maslow wrote; and often as not it seems to work within the little closed group. Outsiders looking in, though, are likely to form a different opinion.

There are plenty of reasons to object to Passport and other privacy-infringing aspects of Microsoft's new marketing scheme -- good, valid reasons. There are likewise very valid reasons to participate and participate vigorously in the ongoing debate that will ultimately determine the extent to which the privacy of information on and transmitted among computers is protected. Goofball conspiracy theories, though, do not advance the cause; indeed, they unfairly tar the truly thoughtful people who oppose Microsoft's policies and who favor the maximum practical protection of electronic communications. There is a difference between wondering what that light is moving across the sky and announcing that we're being invaded by space aliens.

Those who do not wish us well have as one of their most powerful tools the ability to cast us as nutcase script kiddies, and we're doing a great deal to equip them with evidence. A few months ago it was all the rage to append email messages with a long list of words that someone decided would trigger Carnivore, thereby swamping it and making sure that it would find nothing of use. Here's one popular spook.lines file promulgated before September 11:

"$400 million in gold bullion AK-47 ammunition arrangements assassination BATF bomb CIA class struggle Clinton Cocaine colonel counter-intelligence cracking Croatian cryptographic Delta Force DES domestic disruption explosion FBI FSF fissionable Ft. Bragg Ft. Meade genetic Honduras jihad Kennedy KGB Khaddafi kibo Legion of Doom Marxist Mossad munitions Nazi Noriega North Korea NORAD NSA nuclear Osama bin Laden Ortega Panama Peking PLO plutonium Qaddafi quiche radar Rule Psix Saddam Hussein SDI SEAL Team 6 security Semtex Serbian smuggle South Africa Soviet spy strategic supercomputer Taliban terrorist Treasury uranium Uzi Waco, Texas World Trade Center"

This is the electronic equivalent of making false fire and police reports. It also makes it possible for any number of officials to testify before investigative bodies that the likelihood of learning about the events of September 11 in advance was greatly reduced by the Linux and free software crowds clogging the system with trigger words. Whether that claim is true or not, it is not the kind of thing that casts glory on our community. And it is the sort of thing to which people like Fritz Hollings can point in support of legislation that would in effect make Linux illegal. Those who would place strict controls on computer communications could have a high old time for themselves with this kind of activity. It won't be quite so funny then, will it?

We're vulnerable to those charges because some people took it too far. It is and always has been possible to express one's opposition to Carnivore and Echelon in other ways. Freedoms do indeed come equipped with responsibilities, and when we ignore the latter we can easily lose the former. The Linux sphere is not alone in abdicating thought so as to join the thoughtless crowd. The fact is, though, that their crowd is bigger than ours, so if we take them on we will lose, especially if we indulge in the kind of irresponsible -- no, malicious -- behavior exemplified by "spook.lines." I'm frankly surprised that we haven't seen a lot of coverage of how we helped to make September 11 possible, whether it's true or not. I won't be surprised if we do.

A free society, whether it is a big one or a relatively small one -- a country or a community of computer users -- relies on a certain degree of self discipline on the part of its constituents, lest it fall back on lowest-common-denominator rules. That self discipline includes recognizing that which is appropriate (hint: it does not extend to anything not specifically prohibited) and that which is not. There are times and places and ways of making one's point, and they're greatly outnumbered by times, places, and ways which are wholly inappropriate.

We really do need, each of us, to keep this in mind.

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