An MIT professor proposes standards for protection of individual rights. HIGH-TECH ELECTRONICS

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By Gary T. Marx
Gary T. Marx is a professor of sociology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass. / January 2, 1992

RECENT developments in telecommunications, such as the merging of telephones and computers, the replacement of copper wires with fiber-optic lines, and advances in satellite and wireless technology, offer great promise.

We are moving toward a situation where in principle it will be possible to instantly communicate with anyone, anywhere, at any time, for minimal cost.

It might also be possible to obtain equivalent access to databases containing much of the world's knowledge, culture, and entertainment. Technologies that in the past were in the realm of science fiction, or restricted to government or the very rich, are increasingly available.

Yet technology is a knife with more than one blade. The image of an omnipresent "Big Brother," able to pry into the previously protected crevices of private life, captures one potential problem.

Traditionally, to invade privacy required crossing an intact barrier, be it physical or temporal - doors, walls, distance, darkness, or someone's "forgotten" past. Now, however, a vast array of new information-gathering technologies can invisibly undermine these boundaries.

Weak or inefficient technology is no longer an unplanned ally of liberty. The technology is evolving faster than our laws, policies, and manners can control it. Consider some recent examples from the United States:

The increased use of software to control telephone switching can facilitate unauthorized listening to phone conversations. Rather than having to gain access to a wire to make the intercept, a knowledgeable individual using a modem could remotely reprogram a line such that all calls made are simultaneously (and silently) rerouted to a third line and recorded. The line might also be sabotaged by making it impossible to dial out, or by causing anyone who dialed in to receive a constant busy signal.

Phones can also be made "hot on the hook." An "infinity transmitter" attached to a telephone, or as part of an answering machine, converts the phone into a microphone. The individual who dials in (the phone does not ring) can listen to what is being said in the room. The headsets used by many telephone reservationists contain tiny microphones which permit remote monitoring of all office conversation by a supervisor many floors, or miles, away.

Computer communications and entries can be easily intercepted - either electronic mail sent between computers, or documents stored in a computer file.

More than 10 million employees in the United States are subject to computer monitoring of their work. This includes not only counting keystrokes, errors, and time away from the machine, but monitoring content as well.

Software programs such as "ctrl,spy," and "peek" permit remote secret monitoring of a target's personal computer. The image seen on most unprotected computer screens can be reproduced a mile away using simple technology without ever gaining access to the premises where the computer is located.

Of course the same technology that invades privacy can be used to protect it. Telecommunications can be encrypted and biometric devices (handprints, fingerprints, or voiceprints or retinal patterns) can be required to gain access to telecommunications equipment.

Yet these can be expensive and there is a danger of ever-greater escalation, as counterdevices constantly appear in response to new protections or invasions. A society that can only maintain civil behavior by technical means is a society in trouble. It is important to establish standards guaranteeing communications privacy.

At a minimum, under normal circumstances these standards should include:

The protection of privacy says something about what a nation stands for and is vital to the protection of individual liberty. A thread running through all totalitarian systems is lack of respect for the individual's right to control information about the self.

It has been said that a civilization's nature can be seen in how it treats its prisoners. It might also be seen in how it treats personal privacy.

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