Webbed, Wired and Worried
By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN
Ever since I learned that Mohamed Atta made his reservation for Sept. 11
using his laptop and the American Airlines Web site, and that several of his
colleagues used Travelocity.com, I've been wondering how the entrepreneurs
of Silicon Valley were looking at the 9/11 tragedy - whether it was giving
them any pause about the wired world they've been building and the
assumptions they are building it upon.
In a recent visit to Stanford University and Silicon Valley, I had a chance
to pose these questions to techies. I found at least some of their
libertarian, technology-will-solve-everything cockiness was gone. I found a
much keener awareness that the unique web of technologies Silicon Valley was
building before 9/11 - from the Internet to powerful encryption software -
can be incredible force multipliers for individuals and small groups to do
both good and evil. And I found an acknowledgment that all those
technologies had been built with a high degree of trust as to how they would
be used, and that that trust had been shaken. In its place is a greater
appreciation that high-tech companies aren't just threatened by their
competitors - but also by some of their users.
"The question `How can this technology be used against me?' is now a real
R-and-D issue for companies, where in the past it wasn't really even being
asked," said Jim Hornthal, a former vice chairman of Travelocity.com.
"People here always thought the enemy was Microsoft, not Mohamed Atta."
It was part of Silicon Valley lore that successful innovations would follow
a well-trodden path: beginning with early adopters, then early mass-appeal
users and finally the mass market. But it's clear now there is also a
parallel, criminal path - starting with the early perverters of a new
technology up to the really twisted perverters. For instance, the 9/11
hijackers may have communicated globally through steganography software,
which lets users e-mail, say, a baby picture that secretly contains a
300-page compressed document or even a voice message.
"We have engineered large parts of our system on an assumption of trust that
may no longer be accurate," said a Stanford law professor, Joseph A.
Grundfest. "Trust is hard-wired into everything from computers to the
Internet to building codes. What kind of building codes you need depends on
what kind of risks you thought were out there. The odds of someone flying a
passenger jet into a tall building were zero before. They're not anymore.
The whole objective of the terrorists is to reduce our trust in all the
normal instruments and technologies we use in daily life. You wake up in the
morning and trust that you can get to work across the Brooklyn Bridge -
don't. This is particularly dangerous because societies which have a low
degree of trust are backward societies."
Silicon Valley staunchly opposed the Clipper Chip, which would have given
the government a back-door key to all U.S. encrypted data. Now some wonder
whether they shouldn't have opposed it. John Doerr, the venture capitalist,
said, "Culturally, the Valley was already maturing before 9/11, but since
then it's definitely developed a deeper respect for leaders and government
At Travelocity, Mr. Hornthal noted, whether the customer was Mohamed Atta or
Bill Gates, "our only responsibility was to authenticate your financial
ability to pay. Did your name and credit card match your billing address? It
was not our responsibility, nor did we have the ability, to authenticate
your intent with that ticket, which requires a much deeper sense of
identification. It may be, though, that this is where technology will have
to go - to allow a deeper sense of identification."
Speaking of identity, Bethany Hornthal, a marketing consultant, noted that
Silicon Valley had always been a multicultural place where young people felt
they could go anywhere in the world and fit in. They were global kids.
"Suddenly after 9/11, that changed," she said. "Suddenly they were
Americans, and there was a certain danger in that identity. [As a result]
the world has become more defined and restricted for them. Now you ask,
Where is it safe to go as an American?" So there is this sense, she
concluded, that thanks to technology and globalization, "the world may have
gotten smaller - but I can't go there anymore."
Or as my friend Jack Murphy, a venture capitalist, mused to me as we
discussed the low state of many high-tech investments, "Maybe I should have
gone into the fence business instead."
Onward and Upward!