The need to simultaneously protect freedom and assure national security remains vital but vastly more complicated in the Internet era. Cyber experts and U.S. officials delivered that message at an online forum hosted by the Voice of America.
Electronic communication can be used for good or ill, according to Richard McNally, an FBI counter-terrorism official.
"The Internet has become the most prevalent way by which people around the world interact with each other," said McNally. "And that is a force for good, and we have to recognize that. At the same time, the Internet has become a tool for people who want to do harm to others: terrorists seeking to use it for recruitment or training, or communicating with each other about their operations."
'Promise and pitfalls'
McNally and four other panelists discussed the promise and pitfalls of the digital age during an hour-long VOA forum and Webcast.
» Watch the full discussion
Greg Nojeim, senior counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology, said that U.S. laws governing communications and national security have been rendered inadequate and obsolete by breathtaking technological advancements.
"The surveillance laws in the U.S. are way out of date. They have not been updated comprehensively in 24 years," said Nojeim.
Nojeim provided an example: cellular phones, which can be tracked to find where a user is or has been. "People around the world are carrying these phones," he said. "Every few seconds, the phone talks to a tower and says, 'Here I am.' Guess what: that information is saved by the providers [cellular phone companies]."
"Sometimes the FBI needs that information for investigations. What is the rule for getting cell phone location information? There isn't one. And there isn't one because the law was written back in the day when the only guy who had a cell phone was Captain Kirk [science fiction character]," he added.
Panelists noted that surveillance is proving difficult in instances of direct person-to-person encrypted communication, such as services provided by Web-based giant Skype. To remedy the situation, they said, the FBI and other security agencies want high-tech firms to include hidden "back doors" in their products that would allow for surveillance of user activities.
The Center for Democracy and Technology's Greg Nojeim was leery of the idea, saying it could stunt technological innovation.
But the security challenges and potential threats to privacy and freedom posed by the digital age are increasing with each passing day and must be confronted, according to Ambassador Philip Verveer, coordinator of international communications and information policy at the U.S. State Department. He noted that governments the world over are wrestling with these issues.
» Learn more about online freedom and security from VOA's Digital Frontiers project
"We are headed into a lot of discussion between and among national administrations," said Verveer. "This is a very large problem that we have in common. The closer we can come to relatively-harmonized results, the better off we are all going to be."
Another point made by the panel for all electronic communications users: once created, digital information is difficult to erase, and information sent out over the Internet can live indefinitely.