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Does the Web promote terrorism?

Source: ZDNet,,4413,2207029,00.html

Does the Web promote terrorism? By Miguel Llanos, February 11, 1999

Lawmakers on Wednesday weighed a question that could significantly impact what government information is released on the Internet: Should unclassified data that could be used by terrorists be kept off the Net?

Public-interest activists voiced concern that doing so would mark a trend towards less government disclosure via the Internet.

'We never dreamed all that information...could be easily searchable from Boston to Baghdad, from Los Angeles to Libya.' -- Rep. Thomas Bliley

It's being cited as "an emerging national security threat" by Rep. Thomas Bliley, R-Va., and others, who called the hearing before members of the House Commerce Committee.

That threat, they add, is "the potential posting of sensitive and nationwide chemical disaster information - including locations of materials and potential deaths from worst-case accident scenarios - on the World Wide Web."

But Greenpeace and the Federation of American Scientists are among those concerned that, even if well intentioned, the move in Congress represents a disturbing trend towards keeping unclassified data off the Web. Already, the Pentagon has removed hundreds of pages from its Web sites even though none had classified information.

Worst-case scenarios
Bliley, chairman of the committee, noted that the FBI, the intelligence community, police and fire-fighters have stated their fear that such a posting could enable terrorists to target American cities.

The immediate issue is "worst-case" scenario accident data that are to be released this summer by the Environmental Protection Agency. The data covers 66,000 facilities, providing locations of 140 hazardous materials and the potential number of fatalities if a chemical disaster occurred.

"In 1990, Congress required over 60,000 domestic businesses and facilities to submit chemical accident prevention plans to the EPA that ultimately would be made public," Bliley said Tuesday. "Back then, we never dreamed all that information - including human injury projections for 'worst-case' chemical accidents - could be easily searchable from Boston to Baghdad, from Los Angeles to Libya, on the World Wide Web.

"As Secretary of State Madeleine Albright recently stated about the growing threat of worldwide terrorism," he added, "the advance of technology has given us new means to counter terrorists, but it has also enabled terrorists to develop more powerful weapons and to travel, communicate, recruit and raise funds on a global basis."

Finding a balance

While announcing his intention to pass legislation to block Net dissemination, Bliley emphasized that the idea is not to deny people information about chemical facilities in their communities, but to make it available locally, not worldwide.

The FBI has suggested one approach for a balance.

In a letter to the EPA, the FBI suggested the bureau work with "stakeholder groups" to find ways to make worst-case data available "to the local community, including contacts at facilities, Local Emergency Planning Committees, state agencies, public libraries" and the like.

Less sensitive chemical data could be released via the Web, the FBI added, with "electronic speed bumps to allow for limited queries."

Activist concerns
The EPA earlier abandoned its plan to put the worst-case data on its own Web site, Bliley noted, but a separate problem, he added, is that the EPA "has yet to propose a suitable plan for the handling and dissemination of this sensitive information to third parties," namely environmental and other activist groups that might want to post it on their Web sites.

Several of those groups expressed concerns at various levels.

James Love, director of the Taxpayer Assets Project, believes chemical companies might have "dreamed up" the issue to prevent disclosure. "As if terrorists couldn't find (the data) on their own," he argued.

"I'm not unsympathetic with the idea where one can conceive of situations" that require blocking disclosure, he added. "The problem is that it's an easily abused criteria."

Greenpeace USA also suspected the chemical industry was a driving force behind the legislation.

"The chemical industry is trying to squash the public right to know," claimed Charlie Cray, a Greenpeace campaigner. Ever since the appearance of, a Web site showing pollutants in communities, Cray added, the chemical industry has been shocked "that people had that much easy information."

As for terrorists obtaining sensitive data, Cray argued that they can already via state regulatory offices or even at a public library, examining directories of which companies make what chemicals and where.

At the Federation of American Scientists, researcher Stephen Aftergood acknowledged there "are genuine concerns at stake" and that it's "legitimate to be asking questions about what information is made universally available."

"On other hand," he added, "the issue is part of a disturbing new trend - restricting public access to information via the Web."

Aftergood urged lawmakers to promote a "vigorous debate" but noted that no public-interest groups were included on the witness list for Wednesday's hearing.

"It's possible to find a balance," he added, but "I'm not convinced that (Bliley's approach) is the right balance. That's one of the things that need to be discussed. At some point, fear of terrorism itself becomes a threat to the country."

And the threat itself "needs to be assessed and validated" as to whether restrictions are appropriate, Aftergood argued. "After all the corner gas station could be a terrorist target, anybody could do damage with anything."

Pentagon policy
Aftergood noted that the chemical case is not the first time the issue of Web disclosure has come up.

Writing in the January issue of the FAS newsletter, Aftergood noted that the Pentagon has removed hundreds of unclassified pages from its Web sites.

The federation, which has no problem with keeping classified data off Web sites, is now seeking copies of those pages via the Freedom of Information Act, and plans to post them on its Web site.

"What concerns us is the erosion between the distinction of classified and unclassified" data, he said. "That's not the way the system is supposed to work."
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