Monday, August 30, 2004

Safety vs. Security
Sunday's New York Times carried an article about John Young, the ex-architect who has dedicated himself to identifying our country's vulnerable infrastructure. His website, for which I decline to provide a link, amounts to a one-stop-shopping site for information about natural gas pipelines and pump stations, nuclear power plants, and even the security preparations for the Republican convention in New York. Mr. Young thus personifies a central dilemma of our time: how do you balance the public's right to know about things that impinge on their safety and security with the need to hide them from malefactors who would seek to destroy them?

When I first heard of Mr. Young several months ago, I thought he was providing a useful service by highlighting security deficiencies that needed to be addressed. On further reflection, and particularly in light of his zeal at exposing surveillance cameras and other security systems, I have to say that he goes too far. It is one thing to give people the information they need in order to avoid damaging pipelines in the course of construction projects, but it is quite another to broadcast every conceivable vulnerability, along with the preparations by public agencies to counter them. This irresponsibly increases, rather than lowers, our risk.

How might this balance better be struck? One way might be to create a secure intranet for contractors, providing them with access only to the local infrastructure maps they might need in their work. While such a system might still be subject to hacking or subversion, it would at least not do the terrorists' work for them.

Like many people, I'm uncomfortable about any attempt to restrain free speech, even in wartime, since once restrained it may be hard to retrieve later. But there is also a time-honored principle that free speech does not include the right to shout "fire" in a crowded theater, and Mr. Young seems to be doing that as loudly as he can. I suppose its a kind of tribute to our free society that his website is still up and running; let's just hope it's not a fatal tribute.

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