of the American Society for Information Science and Technology   Vol. 28, No. 2    December / January 2002

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Final Thoughts

by Joseph A. Busch

Editor's Note: Throughout his ASIST presidential term just-ended, Joe Busch has provided the membership with an inside look at the activities, goals, plans and expectations of the Society through his bi-monthly President's Page in the Bulletin. Now, in closing out his presidential year, Joe offers a perspective on the "new world" in which we live.

ASIST does not take positions on issues, but our meetings and publications are dedicated to reporting on and discussing information and communication, and their impact on society. The events of September 11, 2001, and their aftermath will affect our discourse and the way we conduct it. Living with and combating terrorism requires both the free flow and selective disruption of information. Attaining the proper policy is a delicate balancing act. The advice and council as well as considered criticism of information professionals is critical. Even though these events are having a huge affect on the economy, altering each of us personally, and affecting our ability to function effectively as information professionals in a global community each of us has a responsibility to examine, discuss and provide a critical perspective on information issues. This column examines several of the issues that I have been thinking about since September 11.

How much risk is acceptable?

On September 11, I was in Manhattan. I arrived at work just as the first rumors of an accident at the World Trade Center were circulating. It was impossible to access the websites of CNN and MSNBC. When I did get a connection to the news websites, the information was frequently not up-to-date. The content infrastructure of the news media is not robust enough to handle late breaking events and communicate them quickly online. But the local radio stations had reporters near ground zero, so I heard the news that the first of the twin towers had collapsed. At the time, it was difficult to discern what was happening in Washington, DC.

I experienced a similar failure of the information infrastructure during the January 17, 1994, Northridge earthquake when I was in Washington and my wife was at home in Los Angeles. I was able to get one phone call through shortly after the disaster, but after that the circuits were overloaded.

We feel vulnerable when the information channels coming in and going out fail to operate when we need to rely on them. While the Internet is designed to use multiple pathways, the phone system and power grid do not have the same sort of redundancy in their design. If an exchange crashes, or a single cable is severed, the system frequently fails. Systems are built to withstand a threshold of stress before they fail. Systems are overbuilt, but they are not built to survive everything. The World Trade Center towers functioned to the specifications by which they were designed, withstanding collapse for more than an hour, perhaps sufficient time for an orderly evacuation. But the circumstances were anything but orderly, and the possibility that the towers would collapse was not part of the emergency response planning. In the Northridge earthquake, most of the Los Angeles freeway system stayed up, even though large sections were damaged minimizing loss of life, but some lives were lost. Minimizing loss does not mean 100% security. But how much risk is acceptable? In the aftermath of September 11, we are reminded that we live in an imperfect world and that nothing ever is absolutely certain.

Was September 11 an information disaster?

U.S. and international law enforcement and intelligence agencies probably had sufficient data that, in retrospect, could have been used to disrupt the events of September 11, if it had been communicated, shared and analyzed correctly. If this is true, then we could call the September 11 terrorist attacks an information disaster. But can we imagine the amount of information that needed to be sifted through and correlated to make the connections necessary to take action to avert this event? We do know that once it was clear what law enforcement was looking for, that the clues and leads were quickly assembled to build the profiles of who was involved and the chain of events over the course of years that lead up to September 11. Constraining the information problem makes it much easier to solve.

Terror feeds on fear, uncertainty and doubt. Turning commercial jets into huge bombs used to destroy or damage large buildings makes a huge impression on people. No one can look at the profile of a jet plane against the sky in the same way anymore. No one can board a jet plane without at least a moment of uncertainty. But caution and security at airports are not entirely new. Government action came quickly, and the measures announced made sense. Turning the mail into a delivery system for biological warfare is more frightening still. After the initial bombings, there were immediately stories in the media about bio-terrorism. But many felt that government action appeared to come slowly, and the measures announced did not make sense. We were left with the impression of a lack of preparedness, an impending public policy disaster. The inability to adequately inform the public is a public relations disaster. Let us hope this does not turn into a public health disaster.

Are we in danger of a privacy disaster?

Law enforcement and intelligence agencies have developed powerful technologies, such as the FBI's Carnivore system, to eavesdrop on digital communications. Unlike wiretaps, which are applied to a particular telephone number, digital eavesdropping is applied to all the traffic on a network, such as all the messages handled by an Internet service provider. Like wiretapping, the FBI's use of Carnivore requires a warrant specifying the probable cause, who the suspect is and what information will be seized. The use of Carnivore-like technology by intelligence agencies such as the NSA is less clearly regulated. If the goal of intelligence agencies is to disrupt criminal activities such as those of terrorists, particularly when they are not U.S. citizens or are operating internationally, then the government may well ignore the 4th Amendment which ensures an individual's right to privacy (that is, against unreasonable search and seizure).

Carnivore technology provides the opportunity to boil the ocean of digital signals and messages sent over a whole telecommunications system. But so far, the information systems of government agencies and the private sector, such as airline passenger manifests, most banking records and marketing databases, have not been interconnected. There is not yet a database to which everything that is transacted digitally flows. The events of September 11 may lead governments to expand their efforts to collect together transactions from all systems everywhere and to develop powerful analytical tools to correlate this data. Such a database might help law enforcement, but it raises large privacy issues.

A free speech disaster?

The commercial U.S. media, like politicians, are aiming for the largest possible audience. Everyone has been glued to their TV sets and scouring the newspapers in the aftermath of September 11, trying to connect the events with their feelings and beliefs as well as their brains. What can I do? How can I help? What does this mean? What will happen next? One can argue about whether the U.S. media has done a good job covering these recent events or not, but the main issue is whether they have been objective enough.

The media's restraint has been notable, but does this mean restraint from sensationalism? Or restraint from revealing secrets? Or restraint from reporting stories that could aid enemies? Or is this an exercise of restricted speech as opposed to free speech? In mid-October, five U.S. news networks agreed to censor broadcasts of Osama bin Laden after the White House said TV broadcasts could be used to send coded messages to al-Qaeda supporters. But there are other networks such as Al Jazeera TV (an "Arabic language CNN") that will air such broadcasts. Politicians often rely on stonewalling, preaching and lies to construct the realities required to carry out their agendas. A lying politician may be constitutional, but a media muzzled is not. Free speech and a free press are guaranteed by the 1st amendment. To shut down the free flow of information from any source is an information disaster in the making.

Whether you agree or disagree with these observations, I welcome your response. These are just a few of the difficult issues that I think information professionals ought to be discussing.

Joseph A. Busch served as president of ASIST for the 2001 administrative year. He now serves on the ASIST Board of Directors as past president for one year. He can be reached by e-mail at jbusch@interwoven.com

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