WASHINGTON (CN) – The federal government is “flirting with killing the goose that laid the golden eggs” by contemplating stricter Internet regulations, an ACLU director cautioned Thursday.
At the conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation, Jay Stanley, public education director of the American Civil Liberties Union, acknowledged that it’s important for the government to set Internet security standards for facilities such as power plants and public schools. But he said federal officials should be wary of violating personal liberties by implementing stifling Internet regulations.
Much of the wealth in the United States is based on the Internet, Stanley said. Strict government regulation threatens to “kill the goose that has laid many golden eggs,” he said.
“The Constitution is not a suicide pact,” added the Heritage Foundation’s Paul Rosenzweig, quoting the oft-used phrase. “We cannot allow a virus to take down the entire electric grid in fear of violating personal liberties.”
He said government intelligence agencies should work hard to balance Internet security and personal liberties.
Stanley said he fears that the latest embodiment of the government effort to protect its computer networks, dubbed Einstein 3, will employ “threat-based decision making,” making pre-emptive calls on who poses an Internet threat.
The new system might include personally identifiable information, using a database of signatures to attack malicious code, Stanley said. The system could be placed on the servers of private Internet providers, blurring the line between government and private industry.
President Obama has promised that the government will not monitor private traffic as part of its cybersecurity initiative, but Stanley remained skeptical.
“We don’t trust that that will remain true,” he said. “Security imperatives and security dynamics have a life of their own.”
He added, “What we don’t want is watch lists for the Internet.” Stanley compared Internet watch lists to “Kafka-esque” no-fly lists in the airline industry that are “based on sloppy lists and questionable computer algorithms.”
Stanley also objected to the notion of needing a license to use the Internet, saying it would eliminate useful discussions in which people can anonymously voice opinions about those in power.
“We do not want to ruin all that,” he said.
He said giving the government the power to shut down the Internet in the case of an emergency would pose the greatest risk to the freedom of speech and association. Right now, Stanley said, it is easier to see how that kind of power could be abused than how it may prove useful. If it were employed, he added, it would require well-defined parameters as well as checks and balances.
Rosenzweig said there was no way to stop people or companies from creating profiles based on Internet users’ search, travel and shopping data.
“It’s a lost cause,” he said.
With increasing computer power and storage space, Rosenzweig said, “the half-life of secrets is plummeting dramatically.”
Even if the United States shut down analytical capacity, he said, countries such as China or India might continue to create profiles for U.S. consumers.
“The game’s over,” Rosenzweig said.