The problem with openness

From Wired, a story about how the Mumbai police have decided that the latest terrorist tool is...an open Wi-Fi network, or more correctly, a series of them, because emails taking credit for the Mumbai attacks were sent through open networks. This seems a bit like blaming the tool for the crime to me, like blaming cyber caf├ęs for 419 scams.

Don't get me wrong--I think it's foolish to leave your network open. We have ours password-protected and encrypted because we figure it's already too easy to have your identity stolen without sending up signal flares and begging people to do it. But that's us--others might not feel that way, or might feel like making wireless broadband more available is more important.

As we move deeper and deeper into this new world of increased connectivity and decreased privacy, we're going to see more tension between people who want to maintain their privacy and those who demand control over information in the name of security. I don't blame the Mumbai police for wanting to secure every network possible--it's their job to investigate crimes, and if open networks make it easier for criminals to cover their tracks, then it only makes sense for the police to want to close off avenues for them. But it's only a short step from that sort of deterrence to data-mining emails for trigger words--all in the name of security. That's your tension.

We want at least the illusion of privacy in our online lives. We like to think that our emails are private communications, even though they can be broadcast worldwide without our consent (as a number of powerful people have discovered in the past) with just the click of a mouse. We can't have it all--we can have relative security and relative privacy, but we're never going to have absolutes in either direction. Our debate going forward is going to center on how much of either we're willing to give up.

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