Bad Thomas Friedman, Bad!
It looks like Thomas Friedman is <a href=”grousing about the Web again. I greatly respect Friedman’s writing on topics concerning foreign policy and the Middle East, but a tech journalist he is not.

He starts his column this week by noting that several of the highjackers on 9/11 made their travel arrangements online. Are we to assume that they would have been unsuccessful in making their arrangements had they made their arrangements by phoning the airline or a travel agent? Fortunately, he drops that point right there and digs into the meat of the issue, which is that many technologies (specifically, in this case, Internet technologies) can be used for both good and evil.

Unfortunately, not much light is shed in the remainder of the column. He discusses no specific problems, other than the problem that people with ill intent can use the same services as people with good intent. He manages to coax this quote out of Travelocity’s former chairman:

Our only responsibility was to authenticate your financial ability to pay. Did your name and credit card match your billing address? It was not our responsibility, nor did we have the ability, to authenticate your intent with that ticket, which requires a much deeper sense of identification. It may be, though, that this is where technology will have to go — to allow a deeper sense of identification.
How would such a system of identification work? Once again, is such identification possible outside the realm of online travel planning? Furthermore, is purchase time the right time to perform such identification? The Ryder truck used by Timothy McVeigh in Oklahoma City and the other Ryder truck used by the first World Trade Center bombers were rented face to face, and that didn’t prevent the attacks.

The column sinks lowest when Friedman decides to resurrect the Clipper Chip:
Silicon Valley staunchly opposed the Clipper Chip, which would have given the government a back-door key to all U.S. encrypted data. Now some wonder whether they shouldn’t have opposed it. John Doerr, the venture capitalist, said, “Culturally, the Valley was already maturing before 9/11, but since then it’s definitely developed a deeper respect for leaders and government institutions.”
Friedman claims some people wonder whether they shouldn’t have opposed it, but then follows up with a quote that doesn’t express any such doubts. He also fails to mention the huge number of problems associated with the Clipper Chip, like the fact that terrorists could just use the back door free encryption software that already exists currently and avoid Clipperized software. Or they could use software from countries where such back doors aren’t required. As far as I know, we don’t even know whether terrorists are using encryption. Certainly the people opposed to encryption that already infest the government would be shouting from the rooftops if we had any proof that encryption prevented us from stopping terrorist attacks.

Finally, the fact that Internet technologies can be used by terrorists is nothing new. People were warning about these dangers long before 9/11, especially when it comes to encryption. The question we face is where we want to strike the balance between liberty and security, but before we can even answer that question, we have to determine how much additional security revoking certain liberties would provide.