The issue of online privacy has always been debatable. Now, the US attacks have added fuel to the fire, thanks to the effectiveness with which the terrorists used technology to cover their tracks. According to a report, at least 19 of them went online to purchase tickets, plan the attacks and coordinate their moves.
Now, with new restrictions in place, free speech activists warn that increasing government surveillance on the Internet will only curb freedom instead of preserving it. This has brought into the limelight technologies and tools such as cryptography, encryption and steganography, which allow browsers to maintain their anonymity online.
Organisations such as the Electronic Frontier Federation and Electronic Privacy Information Center are campaigners of free speech online. EPIC has a whole section dedicated to snoop proof mail, anonymous remailers, cookie busters, html filters, voice privacy and other references.
Easy access to this kind of anonymous software has obviously been a boon for some. The encryption technology developed by Philip Zimmermann, called pretty good privacy (PGP) is also currently being investigated by US authorities trying to find out if it was used by the terrorists. Politicians and defence experts have also warned that Osama bin Laden is known to be a crypto-aficionado who enjoys access to privacy protecting software and hardware.
So, what is cryptography? According to this FAQ, a cryptosystem or cipher system is "a method of disguising messages so that only certain people can see through the disguise. Cryptography is the art of creating and using cryptosystems. Cryptanalysis is the art of breaking cryptosystems. Cryptology is the study of both cryptography and cryptanalysis".
Encryption is the process of changing a 'plain text' message to a 'disguised' (ciphertext) one, while decryption converts the ciphertext to plain text. Both processes use a 'key', and the coding is such that decryption can only be completed with the proper key. SSH Communication's cryptography page has detailed information on the technology, while the security portal from information security professionals has a huge database of links to anonymity and privacy resources. This page offers technical insights into how encryption works, using the public and asymmetric key system and hash algorithms.
Also in focus now is the FBI cyber snooping program, 'Carnivore', opponents of which say its usage on a public network violates one's privacy.
Carnivore is a third generation online detection software (the first was never disclosed, while the second version was called Omnivore). It is essentially a 'packet sniffer' that can see all information passing over a network. It can capture email messages to and from an account, as well as network traffic to and from a specific user/IP address. However, this FAQ clarifies that, unlike what news reports have implied, Carnivore is a passive wiretap that does not interfere with communication.
A recent proposal by President George Bush to permit increased Internet surveillance, expand FBI's wiretapping powers and use Carnivore for a 48-hour period without a judge's approval drew a mixed response. The main reasons for the controversy are that people are worried about privacy implications, how the system works and how it can be misused. This ZDNet report tackles the issue in the wake of the attacks.
There were also allegations that Osama bin Laden has also used an ancient art called steganography that allows one to hides messages in pixels! However, this was later found to be untrue according a study by Niels Provos and Peter Honeyman at the University of Michigan.
Keeping all of this in mind, then, could the US federal and intelligence authorities have anticipated the attack if they had more surveillance power? Computer forensic experts have warned that it would be a leap to conclude that the attack may have been prevented if stricter surveillance laws were in place.
While developers of encryption technology, like Philip Zimmermann, say it may be too late to stop its distribution, one thing is clear: the debate about privacy and free speech online is far from over.
More Like This:
-- Cryptography Resource
-- Electronic Privacy
-- Steganography Software
-- FBI's Carnivore Page
-- Senate okays FBI spying
-- Congress mulls over stiff crypto wars
-- A Constitutional right to decode?
-- Terror in America
-- Are there two Osamas?
-- They told the world before the telly did
-- In search of Nostradamus