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This article is from the In-Depth Report The Internet at 40

Ignorance not bliss when it comes to using the Internet, experts say

Marconi,Internet,privacy,securityNEW YORK, N.Y. — While computers, the Internet and mobile phones have brought their users a great degree of freedom, they've also had a severe impact on privacy, the distribution of information and security, a panel of computer scientists, law enforcement and journalists said Thursday at a Marconi Society symposium here. (Additional coverage of the April 16 Marconi Society symposium.)

The Internet has changed society dramatically, said Robert Gallager, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor of electrical engineering and computer science. "Some of this is healthy, some of this is not," he said at yesterday's conference. The blistering pace at which information is created and disseminated via the Web and mobile devices, "makes our lives more complicated because it's harder to organize the information we receive," he added.

As a result, society can no longer rely on models of ethics that are 2,000 years old or philosophies of the U.S. government that are 200 years old. "I'm not saying we should do away with these things," Gallager said, but people need to reconsider them in a more modern context.

The increased use of networks and computers for banking, social networking and other daily matters has given rise to a new breed of criminal as well, warned Sean Walsh, assistant general counsel for the FBI's nature security branch. The law, such as it is today, is of limited reach and too slow for the Internet, he said, adding that with so many cyber crimes pushing the limits of existing laws, it will take years for an adequate body of effective computer-related case law to accumulate.

One example of how the U.S. government is still trying to figure out how to treat cyber criminals, the Washington-based U.S. Sentencing Commission this week dropped a proposal to hand down stiffer sentences for hackers who set up elaborate proxy networks — sometimes in multiple countries — to commit crimes and hide their identities, the Associated Press reports. Digital-rights advocates, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, had opposed the proposal.

EFF staff technologist Seth Schoen testified before the Sentencing Commission last month (pdf) that the use of proxy servers to route information through the Internet is widespread but that they are not only used for criminal purposes. Businesses use proxy servers, for example, to let their remote workers connect to corporate networks.

Ultimately, the answer to the technology security dilemma lies not in new technologies or laws, but in the educating the people who use the technology, Walsh said. "Engineering solutions to Web's dark side have been banished by greed," he said. "The dark side reigns in a sea of ignorance."

Keeping up with the pace of change in technology makes education challenging. While schools need to continue to instruct students on the benefits of the Internet, this is not enough, said Steven Belloven, a Columbia University computer science professor. "Teaching critical skills, however," he acknowledged, "is a lot harder than teaching how to use Google."

(For more on this subject, see ScientificAmerican.com's in-depth report on privacy and security.)

Image © Scientific American (left to right: William Grueskin, Robert G. Gallager, Steven M. Bellovin and Sean M. Walsh)

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