from the June 02, 2005 edition -
By Amanda Paulson | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
CHICAGO - Soon, patrons of the Naperville Public Library - at
least those wanting to use the Internet - will need more than a
They'll give their fingerprints as well.
It sounds like something out of a Philip K. Dick novel, but the
new requirement is in many ways unsurprising.
The library, like other Internet providers nationwide, has
realized computer users aren't always who they say they are. And the
technology it will use to check up on them is fairly simple -- patrons
will press a glass-topped scanner.
In Naperville, the identity swapping consists largely of kids
trying to circumvent their parents' Internet-filter rules. But in
today's wireless world, users' purposes can be much more sinister:
sending spam, looking up child pornography, or, increasingly, trolling
for personal information like bank-account numbers and passwords -- all
under a cloak of anonymity.
The Internet may have changed our intellectual landscape by
opening doors to vast amounts of knowledge, but it's also made that
landscape increasingly treacherous. Meanwhile, efforts to improve
security -- whether scanning for fingerprints or requiring more
personal information for access to wireless networks -- raise
questions about how to keep a valuable resource open to all without
letting it be abused, and whether it's possible to balance security
"I used to be the guy saying we have to have anonymity on the
Internet, but now I think it's far more important for us to have an
orderly space," says William Murray, a computer-security consultant at
Not everyone agrees, and moves like Naperville's have some worried
that online privacy is endangered. The library says it's doing everything it
can to protect patrons. It deletes its log-in files on a daily basis, and
doesn't spy on the sites users visit. While deputy director Mark West
acknowledges that some may be wary of the fingerprint technology, he hopes a
public-education campaign will help explain how it's used and, most
important, its limits.
"You can't compare it to an FBI database or anything like that," says
While the Naperville library has had a couple of encounters with
the law over Internet use -- once when someone was apparently sending
threatening e-mails to a local journalist, and once when a man was
charged with committing an act of public indecency -- masturbating
while viewing a porn site -- the fingerprint decision was prompted by
the more mundane realization that patrons, especially children, were
swapping library cards to sign on to the Internet. Like a number of
libraries, Naperville requires a library card and ID to go online, and
it allows parents to limit children's Internet access with a filtering
system. To bypass filters, kids simply used their friends' cards.
Still, the move worries some privacy advocates, including the
American Library Association (ALA). Just the idea of requiring
computer users to identify themselves is troublesome, says Judith
Krug, director of the ALA's Office for Intellectual Freedom. "They say
they destroy the records ... The problem is that while you can delete
them from your mail, you have several layers under there," says
Ms. Krug. "I understand the question [of Internet abuse] and I'm
sympathetic to it, but I don't know how to deal with it. Where do you
draw the line?"
That question is becoming even tougher to answer with the
proliferation of wireless technology, which has made the Internet more
widely available even as it increases the ways people can mask their
Some become "wardrivers," cruising neighborhoods for unprotected
wireless signals. Tapping into them can help protect people engaging
in illegal activity from being caught. Worse, some hack into wireless
networks to read their owners' e-mail or find passwords and bank
The proliferation of wireless Internet access in cafes,
airports, and cities can also shield identities. "One of the biggest
concerns is that people will be able to use these commodity networks
in order to do things that they aren't intended for," says Wade Trappe
of the Wireless Information Network Laboratory at Rutgers University.
He and others say that public education is critical: Internet
users should know never to respond to e-mails asking for log-in and
password information, even if they seem to be from a bank, and home
wireless networks should be secured.
While most agree on the need for security, the answer doesn't
always have to involve trading a name or e-mail address for Internet
access. "Both goals are important - we don't want less security or
less privacy," says Marc Rotenberg, director of the Electronic Privacy
Information Center. "Have better security protocols, but don't impose
ID requirements on users."
www.csmonitor.com | Copyright 2005 The Christian Science Monitor.
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