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Communications of the ACM

Inside Risks: Information Is a Double-Edged Sword

As we begin the tenth year of this monthly column, it seems eminently clear that information technology has enormous benefits, but that it also can be put to undesirable use. Market forces have produced many wonderful products and services, but they do not ensure beneficial results. Many systems are technologically incapable of adequately supporting society-critical uses, and may further handicap the disadvantaged. Good education and altruism are helpful, whereas legislation and other forms of regulation have been less successful. Ultimately, we are all responsible for realistically assessing risks and acting accordingly.

The rapidly expanding computer-communication age is bringing with it enormous new opportunities that in many ways outpace the agrarian and industrial revolutions that preceded it. As with any technology, the potentials for significant social advances are countered with serious risks of misuse—including over-aggressive surveillance. Here are four currently relevant examples.

1. Satellite technology makes possible an amazingly detailed and up-to-date picture of what's going on almost everywhere on the planet, ostensibly for the benefit of mankind. However, until now most applications of the imagery have been for military purposes, with a lurking fear by U.S. Department of Defense that the same technology could be used against it. In 1994, the U.S. government seemingly relaxed its controls, approving a private satellite to be launched by a company called Space Imaging, which expects that its clients would use its information for urban planning, environmental monitoring, mapping, assessing natural disasters, resource exploration, and other benevolent purposes. This opportunity may lead to renewed efforts to restrict the available content—what can be monitored, where, when, and by whom—because of the risks of misuse. In the long run, there are likely to be many such private satellites. (Unfortunately, the first such satellite, Ikonos 1, with one-square-meter resolution, disappeared from contact eight minutes after launch on Apr. 27, 1999, although we presume Space Imaging will try again.)

2. The Internet has opened up unprecedented new opportunities. But it is also blamed for pornography, bomb-making recipes, hate-group literature, the Littleton massacre, spamming, and fraud. Consequently, there are ongoing attempts to control its use—especially in repressive nations, but even in some local constituencies that seek easy technological answers to complex social problems. In the long run, there are likely to be many private networks. However, as long as they are implemented with flaky technology and are coupled to the Internet, their controls will tend to be ineffective. Besides, most controls on content are misguided and incapable of solving the problems that they are attempting to solve.

3. Computer systems themselves have created hitherto unbelievable advances in almost every discipline. Readers of this column realize the extent to which the public risks inherent in computer technologies must also be kept in mind, especially those involving people (designers, purveyors, users, administrators, government officials, and so forth) who were not adequately aware of the risks. Furthermore, computers can clearly be used for evil purposes, which again suggests to some people restrictions on who can have advanced computers. In the long run, such controls seem unrealistic.

4. Good cryptography that is well implemented can facilitate e-commerce, nonspoofable private communications, meaningful authentication, and the salvation of oppressed individuals in times of crisis. It can of course also be used to hide criminal or otherwise antisocial behavior—which has led to attempts by governments to control its spread. However, obvious risks exist with the use of weak crypto that can be easily and rapidly broken. The French government seems to have reversed its course, realizing that its own national well-being is dependent on the use of strong cryptography that is securely implemented, with no trapdoors. In the long run, there is likely to be a plethora of good cryptography freely available worldwide, which suggests that law enforcement and national intelligence gathering need to seek other alternatives than export controls and surreptitiously exploitable trap-doored crypto.

In attempting to control societal behavior, there are always serious risks of overreacting. About 100 years ago, the Justice Department reportedly proposed in all seriousness that the general public should not be permitted to have automobiles—which would allow criminals to escape from the scene of a crime. Some of that mentality is still around today. However, the solutions must lie elsewhere. Let's not bash the Internet and computers for the ways in which they can be used. Remember that technology is a double-edged sword, and that the handle is also a weapon.

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See Risks archives at, and the current index at, as well as Peter G. Neumann's Computer-Related Risks.

©1999 ACM  0002-0782/99/0700  $5.00

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