“If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.” — George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” — Franklin Roosevelt

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK — Not a day goes buy, it seems, without there being another story about how the federal government wants to turn the Internet into a surveillance tool for terrorism.

The New York Times reports this morning that President Bush’s “Critical Infrastructure Protection Board” has drafted a proposal calling for private Internet Service Providers to create a “centralized system to enable broad monitoring of the Internet and, potentially, surveillance of its users.” Another possibility is to have such a system run by the government.

One unidentified data system worker who has been briefed on the idea shudders at the thought of a central clearinghouse for Internet users.

“Am I analogizing this to Carnivore?” he asks rhetorically, referring to the FBI’s snooping, decrypting program. “Absolutely. But in fact, it’s 10 times worse. Carnivore was working on much smaller feeds and could not scale. This is looking at the whole Internet.”

ISPs are about as independent and unregulated as an industry can get in the United States. That freedom has always been seen as a reason for the Net’s incredible rise as a communications and e-commerce medium over the past decade. Federal and state governments have — so far — been reluctant to impose much in the way of edicts.

What barriers will crumble next?

However, the continuing war on terror is threatening the Net medium just as economic troubles are crumbling opposition to Internet taxation.

We’ve argued here before that corporate executives, governments and individuals need to pay more attention to security. (A tip of the hat, by the way to The Business Journal in Raleigh for breaking that story last week on just how absurdly easy it would be for hackers to break into North Carolina state government systems.)

And we’ve also pointed out how dangerous a cyber attack on the Internet backbone servers would be to businesses and government.

But we’ve also sounded warnings about the possible further infringement on personal freedom. Today’s NYT story should be ringing more alarm bells.

An official described the center as an “early warning center”, adding: “We don’t have anybody that is able to look at the entire picture (of the Net). When something is happening, we don’t know it’s happening until it’s too late.” The official pointed out that ISPs are independent and only track the part of the Net for which they are responsible. But ISP folks are concerned they could be put into the surveillance business.

Don’t forget ‘Total Information Awareness’

Investigators have documented very well how terrorists use the Internet to plan, to send orders, to hack, to spy. To say “No” to all Internet wiretaps and surveillance would be foolish. But to set up a central clearinghouse for all Net traffic smacks of “big brother” and follows on the heels of another proposed Pentagon program called “Total Information Awareness.”

TIA, as its called, is being developed under the auspices of retired Adm. John Poindexter, who served as a national security advisor under President Reagan. In a recent speech announcing TIA, Poindexter described it this way:

“We must be able to detect, classify, identify, and track terrorists so that we may understand their plans and act to prevent them from being executed.”

Poindexter did say several times that individual freedoms and privacy needed to be protected, noting that “technologies” must “permit us to have both security and privacy.” However, here is another interesting passage:

“To protect our rights, we must ensure that our systems track the terrorists, and those that mean us harm. (Information Awareness Office) programs are focused on making Total Information Awareness — TIA — real. This is a high level visionary, functional view of the world-wide system — somewhat over simplified.”

Note he said “world wide.”

The Internet clearing house concept, according to The NYT, is part of a cyber strategy for the rapidly evolving Department of Homeland Security. So we have Homeland Security working on one clearinghouse, the Pentagon working on another. Few outside the spook world know what the CIA, FBI and NSA are working on.

Where does all this stop?

Rick Smith is managing editor of Local Tech Wire.