Privacy In a High-Tech World Focus of New Book by UMass Amherst Computer Scientist

April 7, 1998


AMHERST, Mass. - You order a sweater using a cordless or cellular phone, or by clicking through a catalog on the World Wide Web. You check your e-mail from a computer in a trendy cybercafe. You log onto a World Wide Web site that offers information on a sensitive health issue. Is your privacy protected? No, says University of Massachusetts computer science professor Susan Landau, who has just co-authored a book on the subject.

Landau wrote "Privacy on the Line: The Politics of Wiretapping and Encryption," with MIT professor Whitfield Diffie. The book was recently published by MIT Press.

Many people take privacy for granted when they use the telephone, send e-mail, or use their Social Security number, according to Landau. But our society increasingly relies on electronic transactions that can be – and frequently are – monitored, from supermarket scanners that note buying habits to electronic toll takers that check travel routines.

E-mail, and cordless or cellular phone calls, are easily intercepted; traditional "wired" telephone calls, while harder to intercept, are routinely tracked by phone companies, she says. And then there’s concern about Social Security numbers falling into the wrong hands: even off-line, there’s the risk of someone fraudulently opening credit accounts, or accessing existing bank accounts, Landau says. The ability of the government and the business world to tap into information about people and their private lives is cause for concern, according to Landau.

Particularly troubling is the lack of legal protection for people whose privacy has been violated, she says. Privacy has become an issue in the business world as well, she says, with companies accusing competitors of stealing corporate secrets through electronic eavesdropping, and going to court to argue the case. It doesn’t have to be this way, according to Landau: "We can retain the privacy that characterized face-to-face relationships in the past," she says.

But to achieve that, society must build privacy protection into its communication systems. That’s easier said than done, according to Landau, not because the technology isn’t developed, but because intelligence and law-enforcement agencies have roadblocked some of these efforts, most notably strong privacy protection of telephones and e-mail, fearing that strong computer privacy tools, known as encryption, will make it more difficult to catch criminals, Landau says.

In the book, "Privacy on the Line," the authors note that surveillance techniques have greatly improved in the past 30 years. The book outlines the conflict between the average person’s right to communicate privately, versus the concerns of national security and law enforcement agencies. Landau and Diffie discuss how privacy underlies a democratic society, and what happens when that privacy is lost.

Few of us will have our personal calls reported in the national media, "but that still doesn’t mean that we want our neighbors to know our political opinions, what we are having for dinner tonight, or whether we just had a fight with our spouse," says Landau. "Communications privacy is critical for journalism, for politics, for medicine, and increasingly for just about everyone in an on-line society."