The following was entered in the 2002 Economist and Shell Writing Prize competition, but did not win. The winners' essays were personal in style, presentation and content. I may post some of the content of previous drafts, which could not fit into the word limits of the original competition guidelines.

How to have Security and Freedom, too


In the Information Age, any technology that is not inherently and obviously secure - any technology that relies on complexity, secrecy, or strength for protection - will be defeated and used for evil purposes. New principles of verifiability, transparency, and traceability must be applied to the design, transport and operation of products, especially those which are or can be used for weapons of mass destruction. Although this will cost money, it will not entail any reduction in freedom. While this will help provide security for most, it will not guarantee security individually. For that to occur, a concurrent societal change towards more openness, less anonymity, and more acceptance of difference must occur. If this new direction incorporating both a presumption of identity and tolerance of diversity is embraced throughout the culture, not only by the people but by governments and corporations as well, then freedom will increase and security will be democratized.

Up to and including the twentieth century, superior firepower and advanced technology won wars. Ideas, however, win the hearts and minds of men and women, for better or for worse. In the Information Age, knowledge cannot be suppressed, and denial can be deadly. Cultists, bombers, terrorists of every race, religion and creed will rise from amidst society to threaten the security and freedom of all. They will do so by exploiting assumptions, expectations and advancements towards their own ends.

Security that relies on technology that is more complex and more advanced than the enemy's has worked in the past, but will not work in the future. Progress has already led to the discovery and deployment of the most horrible means for devastation, weapons of mass destruction, nuclear, biological and chemical, opportunities for efficient and quick genocide, each yielding results that are "more than we can bear," to quote NYC mayor Rudolph Guiliani. Further technical wizardry will just be subverted in ways not yet imagined.

Relying on secrecy is not an option, either. The genie cannot be put back into the bottle. It's not just that the twentieth century gave rise to leaks, underground communications, brainwashing and propaganda and conspiracy theories. But the simplistic notion of a "them" against an "us," in the current case Al-Qaeda terrorist cells waiting to be "activated" (the metaphor of robots being but the latest method of dehumanizing the enemy), will not save anyone from "inside" jobs, individuals who go berserk, the black market, traitors and turncoats, even just people trying to make a quick buck without realizing who they are selling their wares or knowledge to. And in the modern world of telecommunications, bad news, and bad knowledge, travels fast and far and has a half-life but never disappears.

Relying on strength, on brute force, power and might, may slow or delay an attack, but also will not stop destruction, especially as there are clever ways to turn such might to a terrorist's own use. In a world of suicidal maniacs, where "death by cop" is unconsciously pursued by lonely depressives and martyrdom is glorified and rewarded, physical properties like mass, bulk, and rigidity can abet rather than impede the worst intentions. Agility, flexibility and the ability to evacuate are restricted when security is built up rather than built in.

A free society must rely on that which distinguishes it - the fact that it is free - to imagine and invent and "design in" security in ways that counter the assumptions of the past. Instead of complex technologies, codes that attempt to be too computationally hard to crack, artificial intelligence, counter-counter-measures and sophisticated toys, devices should be simple and obvious, uncrackable or noticeably cracked, like wrappers on aspirin bottles. Instead of relying on secret knowledge, specialized training and restricted access, devices should be open, inspectable, with the whole of human attention focused on continuous improvement, like open-source software. Instead of relying on the strength and size and power of materials, devices should be fragile and easily defeated, like breakaway road barriers.

If a terrorist is going to try to turn new technologies to evil ends, then those technologies must be reliable and safe but easily disabled. Devices that are inherently dangerous must contain security mechanisms that can only be defeated by disabling the device itself. Dangerous materials must be transported in containers that are always traceable and in ways that are always identifiable. It should be immediately apparent if tampering, theft or concealment is attempted.

New designs cost money, new products cost money, the enforcement of new techniques and monitoring, verifying and responding to breaches cost money, so, in a practical world, there is only so much that can be achieved. Certainly, the most money must be expended in response to the most dangerous threats. Luckily, the deadliest threat, nuclear weaponry, is the hardest to create, the hardest to gather materials for, the most dangerous to handle and the most difficult to conceal. Large chemical threats are hard to manufacture, handle, and transport, also. The more serious the biological threat, the more likely the terrorist attempting to obtain and deliver the threat will be killed instead. But that doesn't mean that what has been imagined will not be attempted - the threat is real and serious.

Money must be spent elsewhere as well. Airplanes can be designed with secure cockpits, breakaway wings, embedded flight pattern tracking, even remote controllability. Weapons can be created that broadcast their location, that can only be operated by the owner, that can be remotely disabled by the police, or a judge. Goods and materials can be tagged, placed in transparent trucks, and tracked.

Just as built-in safety devices in motor vehicles and along roads do not hamper mobility, built-in security improvements of this sort will not restrict freedom, but the money needed to institute the improvements must be spent. And just as safety improvements can be shown to save thousands of lives but can never completely prevent accidents, so, too, will new designs save the lives of thousands, but can never provide guarantees of security to every individual.

Security that can be purchased at a price will trickle down to the poor, but the poor are the majority. To democratize security, social and cultural assumptions must change, but in a way that does not lead to a reduction in freedom. Just as the design suggestions above call for different engineering principles, so are different social engineering principles needed to provide enhanced security in a free society. Just as democracy is primarily an idea that, when embraced by a citizenry, can transform a society, so can these new ideas, if embraced, put Western civilization on a path towards better security and greater freedom.

Under the absolute security of martial law or a police state, security and freedom are opposites, but that is only at the extreme. That freedom and security are not in opposition to each other is simply illustrated by the fact that, in most cases, the population with the most freedom is the rich, and this population also enjoys, at its own expense, the most security. What the rich do not have, in almost any meaningful way, is anonymity. Known by their servants, their employees, even their suppliers, who feign to keep their purchases secret, the rich can buy discretion, but not anonymity.

Anonymity is the ability to purchase, speak or act in interaction with others in the public sphere while avoiding any identification or traceability back to the purchase, speech or action. In a world of massive anonymity, mob rule, vigilantism, crime and terror are possible.

Of course, in a country where people may have to pass for white, pass for straight, pass for Christian, even pass for male, where anti-miscegenation, anti-sodomy, anti-semitic and anti-suffrage laws exist, anonymity is, unfortunately, the only tool the oppressed can use to attain any freedom. In such a country, if parentage, reading and purchasing preferences are known, identity can be ascertained and the pursuit of happiness restrained. But as America entered the new millennium, an amazingly pro-civil liberties appreciation and expectation of government emerged. After September 11, the people of America agreed with the media that the freedom that was being attacked was the freedom to not have demagogues, of the left, the right or the foreign, declare war against their very existence, no matter how "immoral," "pagan" or "blasphemous" that existence may be defined to be. Twentieth century notions of racism, sexism, religious and sexual intolerance had become both legally and socially passť.

In the twentieth-first century, then, what is the use of anonymity? Except for the voting booth, where citizens' only protection against those who wield the power of government is manifested, is anonymity essential to freedom?

Certainly, anonymity is not a prerequisite for economic liberty, religious liberty, or sexual liberty. Freedom of speech, freedom of association, and protection against warrantless searches and seizures do not require anonymity to be upheld. A citizen is not anonymous in his own home or in a private club, where privacy laws prevail, or at work. Cars with license plates, drivers with driving licenses, are not anonymous. Western civilization, particularly modern cities, have created an assumption that anonymous money, anonymous recreation, anonymous communication, are necessary components of privacy.

But what about asserting a right to identity? What if communication systems, telephones, mail systems, and the Internet, were designed with an assumption of identity instead? Is Caller ID Orwellian? Is sending e-mail spam a right? What if those who asserted their identity, whether through a government, commercial or not-for-profit identity card (or some other more effective technological device or method), were given easier access to public and quasi-public spaces, and it was the anonymous who, while retaining their right to be anonymous, had to agree to a search to enter?

Of course, once a right to identity is recognized, the anonymity of others can be questioned. Should a government contain faceless bureaucrats, undercover agents, anonymous mob police, secret investigators with confidential files? In a world with an assumption of identity, searches, when warranted, must not be conducted in secret, the surveilled must be fully aware of being surveilled, and must have access to the information collected about them. There must be no secret methods of surveillance and there must be a social, moral and political desire to ensure that this is so. This idea would apply not only to government, but to employers, insurance companies, marketers, and countless others who take advantage of anonymity on a daily basis.

If terrorism spreads to restaurants, supermarkets and cafeterias, as it has in Israel, if it arrives in the mail, by truck or by plane, as it has in America, the clamor for security will grow, but the old solutions will fail. Bad speech, bad ideas and bad people must be fought not by attempting to suppress and curtail all speech, ideas and people, but by increasing the ability to spread good speech, good ideas and good people. Freedom must be used as a weapon against ignorance, isolation, ideology and fear. It is possible.

Ed. note: This was prescient of an opinion piece about so-called "soft targets" written by Clark Kent Ervin, former DHS Inspector General, in the May 7, 2006, issue of The Washington Post:

If the attack were to take place outside the major cities already considered prime terrorist targets -- such as New York, Washington, Los Angeles and Chicago -- the collective national psyche would be especially traumatized. For the first time, every American, wherever he or she lived, would feel at risk. A single suicide bomber in a shopping center in Topeka, or a single bomb-carrying car rammed into a movie complex in Omaha, could bring the nation to its psychic knees.

Adding to the appeal such scenarios hold for terrorists is the reality that precious little can be done to prevent them in a society like ours that rightly values personal liberty so highly. Terrorist attacks in shopping malls, restaurants and the like are everyday, fact-of-life occurrences in Israel, and so the Israelis have come to accept countermeasures such as metal detectors, bomb-sniffing dogs, armed police patrols and undercover surveillance teams on the lookout for suspicious-looking people and suspicious behavior.

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Last Updated: November 24, 2007