Thursday, February 21, 2008

Total privacy impossible in post 9/11 United States

Today I had the pleasure to listen to a presentation by Kevin Bowyer, chair of Notre Dame's Computer Science and Engineering department. Professor Bowyer's presentation was entitled "Porn on the Dean's PC" and covered the idea behind privacy on corporate computers.

In 1998 a Harvard school computer technician found pornography on divinity school dean Ronald Theimann's home computer while conducting a hard drive upgrade.

The technician reported the findings to a supervisor, and Theimann was eventually relieved of his dean-ship.

Keep in mind this was LEGAL pornography in Theimann's possession.

However, here's the kicker: the computer was supplied by Harvard and the house Theimann was living in was also owned by the university.

The major question of the presentation was if the technician was right in reporting the questionable files to his supervisor, and if it was right that Theimann was stripped of his title. And, after everything I heard, I believe the answer to both questions is yes.

Originally, I was opposed to the ideas. However, after being reminded that Harvard owned both the house and the computer I switched my opinion.

Much like a company can monitor e-mails and phone calls made by their employees, Harvard should have the right to monitor Theimann's internet usage. After all, there is really no difference between a company computer and a university computer, especially considering in both cases the providers can be liable for what the hardware is used to do. Not to mention that Theimann was the dean of the DIVINITY school.

In the grander scheme of things, I think the lessons learned from this case can be applied to an issue that is prevalent in America today: personal privacy.

Following September 11, the government passed many laws allowing for the monitoring of several things - including e-mail, phone calls etc. These laws have drawn heavy criticism from groups that oppose the government's encroachment into personal privacy.

I am a firm believer that the government should not have as much influence as they do. However, I also believe one of the responsibilities of the government is to protect their citizens.

Let's re-write the Harvard case to something a little more relevant in world politics:

Library ABC is a small library in a quiet American town. Little do they know, but the government is keeping tabs on all e-mail and web activites conducted at the library.

Violation of privacy? I'll leave that to you to decide.

But, what happens if terrorist ABC decides to use Library ABC to communicate with other members of his terrorist group. The government intercepts this message, stops the communication, and arrests both parties.

Is it worth sacrificing a little of our privacy for that? Yes, I think it is.

Simply put, each United States citizen is like a corporate-owned computer. The government is responsible for their actions, and they are liable for the things that their citizens do. The government must act for the greater good of it's people.

If that means sacrificing a little privacy (or, in the case of Harvard, firing a dean) I'm okay with that.

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