"Don't Blame the Internet," Washington Post, September 29, 2001, p. A27.
At times during the past two weeks, faith in the benefits of electronic communication has been as badly damaged as the World Trade Center's once-proud structures. Depicting the Internet as a veiled, invisible force, some observers have insinuated that the World Trade Centers might still be standing had it not been for the global communications network that empowered the terrorists. In an otherwise reasoned essay in the September 13 New York Times, Thomas L. Friedman wrote of terrorists "superempowered" by "their genius at using the networked world [and] the Internet." Even online insider Wired News, in a Sept. 20 headline that read "The Internet's Fingerprints Are All over Last Week's Attack," metaphorically personified the Internet as Osama bin Laden's partner in crime. According to these reports of an "online Jihad," real-world structures, and the many lives within, were undermined by information architecture.
Yet a closer look at the early evidence suggests that the cyber-terrorists were no more hacker geniuses than the average American college student. True, they seem to have coordinated meetings and plans via e-mail -- but so does my mother from her farmhouse in the Midwest. True, they seem to have sent anonymous e-mails from pay-per-use public Internet terminals at Kinko's stores or libraries -- but finding a free e-mail service online is hardly a skill reserved for MIT post-docs. And what hacker in his right mind would follow the terrorists' practice of entering their frequent-flier numbers when buying electronic tickets from Travelocity.com?
In addition to generating their own anxieties, traumatic events serve as lightning rods for free-floating ones. So perhaps it should not be so surprising that a public uneasy about the effects of technological advances on everything from the stock market to sexual reproduction should view such mundane acts of telecommunication with suspicion. For politicians, there is a compelling motive for painting Tuesday's events as a cyber-attack. As the World Trade Center toppled, so did their constituents' sense of security.
Yet it is difficult to know where to begin to patch the security leaks in ramparts so demonstrably porous. As important as it may be to flush terrorists out of mountain passes in southern Afghanistan or persuade third-world countries to conform, it is far easier for Senator Judd Gregg (R-New Hampshire) and President George W. Bush to rally support for the government surveillance of electronic networks.
But efforts to debilitate public key encryption and other Internet privacy protocols ignore the advice of the overwhelming number of computer forensic specialists, who point out that the problem is not the access to the information, but knowing where to look for it. Terrorists are more likely to use steganography -- hiding messages in images or code words -- than cryptography, the mathematical encoding of texts sent via e-mail or other electronic means.
The irony is that any U.S. crackdown on personal telecommunications privacy may unwittingly hamper foreign resistance to the sort of totalitarian regimes that tend to sponsor terrorism in the first place. Had Drazen Pantic of B92 radio in Belgrade broadcast his anti-Milosevic commentary from some permanently accessible brick-and-mortar tower, he might not be alive today. It is only the ability to operate via an anonymous Internet presence that saved him and other nomadic resistance leaders from the fate of the Taliban's unlucky dissidents. We do not yet know whether e-mail encryption helped bin Laden hide his plans from the CIA, but we do know for sure that Pantic and his peers have used such privacy safeguards to help liberate their people.
Indeed, the Internet is the most radical experiment in liberty of the past half century. And it is our experiment. Before retreating into reinforced citadels to defend ourselves against "terror networks," it may be useful to remember that the first decisive victory of dispersal over centralization was won by George Washington's ragtag guerrillas.
Two centuries later, Rand Corporation analysts, concerned that a Soviet strike against a centralized hub could "decapitate" American communication in wartime, decided that the best defense would be a network -- and the Internet was born. To the Soviets, this collection of independent computer servers presented a nearly invulnerable target, able to route around damage dynamically, harboring communication that is simultaneously everywhere and nowhere.
Unfortunately, the architecture of the World Trade Centers owed more to the centralized layout of Versailles than the dispersed architecture of the Internet. The sad result is that the self-styled "capital of the world" has now been decapitated. Had the Internet's architects chosen to create their computer network in a pair of giant towers in Utah, terrorists could have done wider-ranging economic damage by flying planes into *them*.
In his speech to Congress, Bush said, "Freedom and fear are at war." But his efforts to cripple the safeguards that guarantee the free exchange of ideas, here and around the world, make it unclear which side he is on in this war. The newly created Office of Homeland Security, rather than letting unwarranted suspicion quash the Internet's inherent freedoms, should recognize its liberating potential and learn from it.
As could those who seek to rebuild the World Trade Center towers. A pair of facsimiles will not serve as monuments to anything other than our hubris. We don't need another symbolic Bastille to be stormed by those who view America as their oppressor, another firetrap for New York's finest and bravest. It is not a conspicuous icon of economic strength that makes New York great, nor is it the city's innumerable cultural landmarks, whether the Statue of Liberty or Carnegie Hall or the Guggenheim Museum where I work. As last week should leave no doubt, New York's resilience derives from the interconnections it fosters among its vibrant and heterogeneous inhabitants. It is in decentralized structures that promote such communal networks, rather than in reinforced steel, that we will find the architecture of survival.