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Over the last few years, I’ve read a number of news articles detailing how various web services have been or could be used by terrorists in plotting their attacks. The latest example was the claim that the terrorists who recently plotted to blow up the fuel tanks at JFK airport used Google Earth to pinpoint the coordinates and get aerial views of their target. Some security experts have suggested that such services should be shut down or restricted to exclude locations that might be likely attack targets from their databases.

Certainly none of us want to make it easier for terrorists to accomplish their missions – but I can’t help wondering where an all-out effort to do away with everything that might aid the bad guys will lead us. After all, it’s well documented that terrorists also use cell phones and email to further their plotting. Does that mean we should shut down those communications systems, as well?

If you think about it, it’s a slippery slope. Do you take away tools that have valuable legitimate uses by law abiding citizens just because criminals can use them to commit crimes? That’s the premise of gun control laws, but in the U.S., those laws have had dismal success records. Do we really want to extend that philosophy to Internet sites and services?

It’s true that too much information can be a dangerous thing. I admit that sometimes I wish it weren’t quite so easy for others to find information about me on the ‘Net. It makes me uncomfortable that strangers with some Internet research savvy can find out where I live, especially considering the hate mail I sometimes get for expressing my opinions in these editorials and in other forums. On the other hand, I’ve used those very same research tools and techniques to locate long-lost family members and friends, thus enriching my life.

In this country, we’ve always been willing to take some risks in the interest of freedom. For instance, you’ve long been able to find bomb-making instructions in most public libraries, but that hasn’t led to an epidemic of homemade explosions – at least, not in the past. One might argue, though, that we’re up against a different type of threat now, and that it has become necessary to restrict not only access to “dangerous” physical tools but also access to “dangerous” information. It’s not an easy issue.

It all comes down to a question of how far we’re willing to go in pursuit of security. Would you be willing to have the web censored by the government, as it is in China and some other countries, in order to keep terrorists from obtaining information they could use to hurt us? Would you be willing to have all your email monitored by the government in the interest of catching terrorists?

How about giving up paper money in favor of digital dollars and having all your financial transactions tracked and logged, so that the authorities can spot money transfers made by terrorists? What if the police “needed” to listen to all phone calls in order to catch criminals? Would you protest mightily or just grumble a little, or would you go along with it happily, if it’s “for the children?” Would you support having mandatory GPS tracking devices on all cars, so they could always be located if necessary? What about surveillance cameras on all street corners – or even inside private buildings and vehicles? Drastic measures, sure – but it beats being blown up by terrorists. Or does it?

Some people will say the above suggestions are ludicrous and could never happen in a free country. But who would ever have believed, twenty years ago, that one day we would have to take our shoes off before getting on an airplane, or that we’d ever need a passport for a quick jaunt to Mexico or Canada?

The idea of shutting down an Internet service that terrorists are using might seem like the prudent and patriotic thing to do, but how far do we go? Tell us what you think. Should there be restrictions imposed on the information that’s available on the ‘Net if that information could be used illegally? Or is freedom of information worth the risks? 

Deb Shinder