Aftermath: Time for technology to step up to the plate

Internet encryption and the trade-off between freedom and security will dominate the tech debate that is to come in the wake of the terrorist attacks in America, says Guy Kewney.

COMMENTARY--Two awful images of recent times: Concorde trailing flames through the skies of Paris, and aircraft crashing into New York. Both images available--not as still photographs, but in video.

It was about 10 years ago that I realized the world had changed; that almost anything, whatever happened anywhere, could be recorded by an amateur photographer. There are just so many cameras--the probability of someone having one pointed in the direction of a noteworthy event has become better than evens.

And from that, comes the realization that today, the number of video cameras is reaching a similar point.

Add the Internet to the equation, and you realize the world has changed again. But there is still something missing.

Everybody who had Internet access went straight to their browsers. Traffic to the big news sites slowed the Web to a crawl; I had to hit the "refresh" button several times on all the major media sites before getting anything other than "Not Found" pages.

We even had live reports from inside the hijacked aircraft, from people using the airphones built into the seats of most American internal flights, and maybe even ordinary cell phones.

But what interests me is what was not available; real-time Webcam coverage.

In 10 years' time, when a major newsworthy event occurs, I suspect the Internet will be professionally harnessed.

Today, if you have a Webcam, you're pretty unusual, and you're generating anonymous still images every few seconds. A few authorities--tourist promoters, mainly--have cameras showing scenes like the Tower of London or the Bay Bridge in San Francisco.

In a decade, things will be very different
In 10 years, most of us will have broadband access, and will have security cameras transmitting images from our homes or offices to storage centers.

We will also have phones capable of receiving full-motion video. Many of us will have phones capable of transmitting full-motion video.

Also, we will have huge data stores. We'll be able to store a full day's high-resolution full-colour video; that means, you'll feed the data from a camera onto a disk array, and throw away any data that is 24 hours old. And if it's low-res monochrome video, you'll be able to store a week's worth.

Who can predict what the commercial world will be like in a decade? But if people carry on using technology and buying and selling it, and remain interested in current affairs--as seems likely--then it is possible to organise these Webcams into a commercial network.

The way I might try it, if I ran a TV or Web news service, would be to offer subscriptions to camera owners. I'd say: "Register your Webcam with us, assign us exclusive copyright to your images, and if anything happens which your camera captures, you will get paid."

As soon as something happens, news producers would be able to say: "What is the IP address of our local Webcam?" and would be able to retrieve video directly. Not just live images, but the last hour's worth, maybe more.

I think such Webcams will be on every street corner in major cities. They will go up for anti-crime and other monitoring reasons.

There's another thought that you might like to ponder; who else will have access to these images? Because after the failure of military intelligence to predict the World Trade Center attack, I really doubt that the world's superpowers are going to tolerate any sort of personal privacy on the Internet in future.

All that information is too much for anybody to search through; but that won't stop the security agencies from wanting the right to do so.

This particular attack is said to have been organized by a highly sophisticated group of people with huge resources. It may be so--though, getting four knives onto four aircraft seems, to me, something that could be arranged by one family of brothers. But if it was a major organization similar to the organisation that set up the Day Of Action, then there's a chance that it used the Internet to organize itself.

That chance is enough that there will be calls for Internet encryption to be outlawed.

This event will have big effects on the IT world, as people begin to understand that disaster recovery is not just a trivial matter for a few government agencies, but something anybody could need at any time. But big though that change will be, I don't think it will match the coming paranoia about Internet secrecy as a possible cover for terrorism.

Politicians are talking about "eliminating all terrorist training camps" in the world, as if this might be possible. They won't find it any less plausible to ban all private encryption, however futile it may actually be.

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