They Haven't Got a Clue — The Government and High Tech

by H. Keith Henson

In ENGINES OF CREATION Eric Drexler makes a strong case for controlling the development of nanotechnology so that really dangerous examples are not inadvertently released.

Most people who read this assume that a government or group of governments would be the agent to control nanotechnology, perhaps based on the assumption that the government is the most powerful human institution. On the basis of recent experience, I don't hold out much hope for the effectiveness of government control over nanotechnology.

There is little doubt that governments are powerful institutions. But they are no more intelligent than the people making the decisions. Those people are either elected representatives or bureaucrats. The effect is often like dealing with a brain-damaged elephant.

With the limited exceptions of educational institutions and the military, governments are just about lost trying to deal with advanced technology. I suppose if you think about it, this is not too surprising. After all, if you are attracted to cutting-edge technology, you are likely to be working on it rather than getting elected or becoming a government bureaucrat.

I am going to discuss a specific example of this: the federal government's crackdown on "hackers." The FDA and the DEA are good examples too, but the 1988 seizure of the Alcor BBS (bulletin board system) by the Riverside coroner during the search for Dora Kent, and our subsequent successful suit have given me a lot of knowledge about this topic. In fact, some of the research which was developed for the suit by 15 Alcor members over the illegal taking of email (electronic mail) without a warrant was used in the recently filed case of Steve Jackson Games (SJG) against the federal government.

To bring you up to date on the now settled Alcor/email case, back in 1988 the Riverside coroners took a computer used by a number of Alcor members for electronic mail. My use of the computer was typical. I would call the computer and send articles for CRYONICS magazine and notes to the editors about the articles. All the computers at Alcor were taken in the second of the searches, and not returned for some 11 months.

Because the applicable federal laws were relatively new (the Electronic Communication Privacy Act of 1986), and had never been used against a law- enforcement agency, it took a while to figure out that our rights under this law had been violated. We filed a suit under these laws just before the statute of limitations ran out. The Riverside County government was aghast. To quote one of Riverside's lawyers: "The case was filed in Federal Court. It should have been filed in the Twilight Zone."

However, the violation of the law was fairly clear: they did not have warrants to seize our electronic mail (or deny access to it) as the law requires, so after trying to get the case dismissed, they gave up and offered us $30,000 to settle. We took it. Though I would have preferred a clear court case, if the other side offers essentially all you would get at trial, there is not a lot of choice (because judges see no point in trying such a case). Because of other considerations, we skipped the chance to get a headline: "County pays off in Twilight Zone."

SOURCE: CRYONICS magazine January 1992, page 5