Letter to Congress

Mon Sep 17th, 2001 17:29:37 EDT

Diary Entry 44
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I sent a letter to my Congressional representation today. I encourage any U.S. citizens or residents who might be reading this to do the same. The content of the letter is enclosed below.

As a registered voter in your district, I am writing to you regarding the disaster that so suddenly focused our nation's attention this past Sept. 11. The most important work in the aftermath of this terrible attack is to care for the survivors and mourn for the departed, and furthermore to track down and punish those responsible for the attack. I encourage any efforts along these lines. However, I am also concerned about other issues.

In particular, I wish to draw to your attention to the potential for unnecessary legislative assault on personal freedom in the United States in the coming weeks and months. There is the worrisome possibility that new laws will be passed and signed in the name of national security, applying less than a prudent or usual amount of scrutiny to negative effects. Historically, such laws have proven difficult to repeal, making their passage even less desirable.

An example lies in the misguided call for a ban on the use of encryption for electronic mail, because terrorist Osama bin Laden is known to make use of encryption. Proponents of such a ban obviously mean well, intending to make it more difficult for terrorists to communicate. They do not understand that such software is freely available from many sources throughout the world, not just within the United States, so a ban would have no practical effect on availability of encryption, and even if bin Laden were prevented from using encryption, his organization would have many other options for secure communication.

In addition, encryption has many legitimate uses. Electronic mail sent unencrypted is easily read and intercepted by a third party without the knowledge of sender or recipient, in the same way that information written on a postcard can be read as it passes through the postal system. Encryption is the only practical way for ordinary citizens to provide basic security against tampering that a simple paper envelope provides for paper mail. This in itself is enough reason to allow and even promote the use of encryption, but there are many other positive uses, as illustrated in books such as Schneier's Applied Cryptography.

In summary, I encourage you now in this time of crisis to consider bills on their merits and pay close scrutiny to negative effects on individual liberty, in the careful same way that you would do so at any other time. Do not allow yourself to be swayed by hysterical (but understandable) reactions to the magnitude of the present disaster. As Benjamin Franklin once said, ``They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.'' When the safety in question is in fact illusory, this adage is even more applicable.


Ben Pfaff.

Last updated 03 Apr 2004 21:17. Copyright © 2004 Ben Pfaff.
May be freely redistributed, but copyright notice must be retained.