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Open Letter From Recipients of the Norbert Wiener Award

Washington, DC

October 16, 2004

We write as former recipients of the CPSR Norbert Wiener Award to express our concern about the significant redirection in science funding toward the development of systems of mass surveillance. It is our view that this research priority could pose a fundamental risk to political freedom, privacy, and Constitutional liberty.

Since 9-11, there has been an understandable shift in the nation's research priorities. New work is under way to help detect the threat of future terrorist acts. For example, research to detect explosive materials, dangerous gases, and other potentially lethal substances is critical.

However, there are special risks associated with the development of systems of mass surveillance that must be addressed. Unlike techniques that identify dangerous substances, techniques of surveillance enable identification of virtually any subject. The result is invariably that research that is pursued for the narrow purpose of fighting terrorism, over time, takes on many other objectives. This is already apparent in such areas as passenger profiling, video surveillance, and network analysis.

Left unchecked, the consequence of this development could be the adoption of systems of mass surveillance unrelated to any terrorist threats. This will give the government sweeping new capability to monitor private life and thus diminish the freedom and liberty of Americans.

It is vital that the social and political consequences of these projects be understood at the outset. Privacy and security issues should be addressed before they are developed and deployed. Privacy requirements should be addressed earlier in basic research, in the specifications for any system procurements, and in operational practice.

Previously, the Congress and the science agencies recognized the special need to address the impact of new technologies. The program on the Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications of the human genome project provided funding for researchers to assess the far-reaching impact of this technology. This work produced many important results across a broad range of areas and has better prepared the scientific community, and our country, to address the changes brought about by human genome research.

Similar research must begin in the area of privacy and security. Too much money is spent today on systems of mass surveillance; too little is spent on understanding the social consequences.

We call on the National Science Foundation, DARPA, the Department of Homeland Security and other relevant agencies to determine whether adequate safeguards are being developed to protect the civil rights of the populations who will ultimately become the human subjects for the deployment of these systems.

We call on the Congress to set aside funds to allow for a candid and independent assessment of the ethical, legal, and social implications of this technology.

The American public has repeatedly made clear that it does not support the establishment of vast systems of public surveillance. Yet our science agencies and many of our top researches are now pursuing precisely this mission.

We believe this must change.


Karl Auerbach

Brian Behlendorf

Laura Gould

Dan McCracken

Peter G. Neumann

Severo Ornstein

Theodore A. Postol

Eric S. Raymond

Marc Rotenberg

Barbara Simons

Richard M. Stallman

Barry Steinhardt

Joseph Weizenbaum

Philip Zimmermann

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Last Updated: October 20, 2004
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