Lost in Cyberspace?

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This Policy Essay discusses the emerging security threat of cyberterrorism and the historical impulse to restrict civil rights and civil liberties during times of national crisis. Cyberterrorism poses a significant danger that requires a strong and unequivocal response, but such a response need not sacrifice important constitutional safeguards. Frequently in our past, from the time of the two World Wars to the recent attacks on the World Trade Center, our leaders enacted policies that gave an illusion of enhancing security but in reality failed to provide additional safeguards and in the process abused constitutional rights. We argue that this historical pattern need not continue with regard to cyberterrorism. With proper planning and a sense of urgency, cyberterrorism can be addressed proactively before serious harm is done. This will not only reduce the possibility that the same terrorists who turned commercial airplanes into lethal bombs will turn our vast computer networks against us, but it will also reduce the risk of unnecessary infringements of our civil liberties.

To understand properly why steps to counter cyberterrorism should be taken now, it is important to discuss briefly how widespread violations of civil liberties occurred in our past, and how they are recurring once again after the September 11 attacks. Only by understanding the context in which violations of civil liberties become prevalent does the need for action become clear. Accordingly, this Policy Essay begins with a general overview of the Bush Administration's response to the September 11 attacks, with a particular emphasis on the disturbing parallels between long-time FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and former Attorney General John Ashcroft. With this background established, the Policy Essay then presents cyberterrorism in detail, along with the Clinton and Bush Administrations' strategies for addressing the threat. The Policy Essay concludes with suggestions for how the problem of cyberterrorism can best be approached in the future—in a manner that will both safeguard our national security while maintaining maximal respect for our civil liberties.

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John D. Podesta is the President and CEO of the Center for American Progress. Raj Goyle is the Senior Domestic Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress.