Liberty under threat?

16 September 2001

"They that would give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."

-  Benjamin Franklin, 1759

The board of Electronic Frontiers Australia is shocked and horrified by the tragic events in America on September 11. We extend our deepest sympathies to all those who are affected.

We note with concern that, in reaction to the attacks, proposals are being put forward in the USA to abandon traditional constitutional rights and grant sweeping new surveillance powers to law enforcement authorities.

The USA reportedly spends $US30 billion per annum on intelligence services, expenditure which proved to be utterly ineffective in dealing with the terrorism menace. Society at large is already saturated with surveillance technologies which spy on ordinary citizens, but which apparently failed to detect any signs of a major terrorist operation. The solution proposed by legislators in response to this systemic failure is to spend even more money on surveillance activities. One is obliged to question whether this expenditure is misdirected.

Predictably, the Internet, and in particular encryption technology, has been blamed for facilitating the terrorist attack, with no evidence presented to support the assertion. Even if this claim were true, does it make any more sense than to rail against the existence of cars, knives or commercial aviation?

It has been suggested that the crypto debate should be reopened and that more encryption controls should be introduced. The same arguments against this proposal apply now as in the past. Encryption software is just mathematics. You can't ban mathematics or put out a recall notice on existing human knowledge. Proposals such as these, along with proposals for new draconian laws, will impact only on honest citizens, not on terrorists. As the old saying goes, "Outlaw crytpography and only outlaws will have it."

Essential freedoms, once lost, are never regained. If we allow our leaders to move us ever closer to the totalitarian surveillance society foreseen by Orwell, we lower human dignity and respect for humanity to the same level as those who seek to destroy civilisation.

"History teaches that grave threats to liberty often come in times of
urgency, when constitutional rights seem too extravagant to endure."

Justice Thurgood Marshall, 1989