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Echoes of conflicts past

We all have a role in the new information war.

The sky was clear and the mall was unpopulated as I ascended the steps of the Lincoln Memorial for the first time in my life. Looking back over the drained reflecting pool, the scene brought me back to the many video clips of demonstrations in Washington, D.C., especially Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. The street is now blocked off and several barricades have been added on either side of it for security purposes, but the tree-lined pool overshadowed by the Washington Monument is the same hallowed ground I had only seen through my television screen until now.

I was in Washington the week before the war began with ComputerUser President Chuck Thell and CEO Vance Opperman to meet with Mark Forman, associate director of information and e-government for the Office of Management and Budget–our interview subject this month. Our meeting with the self-proclaimed CIO of the federal government ended a few hours before our flight was to take off. So Vance–who has spent much of his life in the nation’s capital–took Chuck and I on a guided tour of the major memorials.

Reading the Gettysburg Address on the wall of the Lincoln Memorial stirred emotions comparable to those I have had when I heard tapes of Dr. King’s speech from the steps of the memorial. The emotions were amplified as I walked along the wall honoring the more than 60,000 American Vietnam casualties, again when we strolled by cold statues memorializing the nearly 500,000 UN soldiers who lost their lives in Korea, and yet again as we viewed the statue of six boys hoisting a flag pole over Iwo Jima, where more than 7,000 marines were killed. I didn’t know it at the time, but the tour was a prelude to what has become a bitter reminder of the costs of war broadcast over several channels 24/7. The haunting words uttered at Gettysburg seven score years ago echo in the lists of dead and missing broadcast daily, “…the great task remaining before us–that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion….”

Before I continue, let me dispel the myth that I endorsed Operation Iraqi Freedom, especially the way our leaders conducted themselves leading up to it. Still, we have passed the point of preventing it. Now our tasks are clear: To honor those who fight, to pray for their families, and to hope for a quick end to conflict. (I pray for my neighbor Grace and her three children who hang on every word uttered by every embedded reporter. Grace hasn’t slept in weeks–glued to CNN hoping for news of her husband Scott, a Marine staff sergeant leading a platoon of reservists into conflicts for which they are underprepared, versus combatants dressed in civilian clothes and hiding among women and children.) Though I did not support the war as such, I believed Colin Powell’s claims that we would find out things in Iraq no inspectors could. And we have found a hotbed for terrorists no one quite expected. If the war and its aftermath prevents more terrorism than it stirs up, history will favor it. We all hope it serves to protect the world from terrorism as the Afghan war has done. Only time will tell.

Whatever happens in Iraq, 9/11 has changed the nature of war. No longer will memorials only remember the combatants who left their lives on the battlefield. The next war memorial in New York will remember 3,000 noncombatants who died in the new battlefield–Planet Earth. In this war, we are all combatants, so we all must take increased devotion to the cause of peace and security in our world. That starts at home and in our places of business when we protect our information from falling into the wrong hands.

Shortly after 9/11, Editor at Large Nelson King wrote a stirring Pursuits column called “Lost Transactions,” that points out a less tangible cost of 9/11–the billions of transactions lost forever in the rubble of the World Trade Center. I urge you to reread it. The column points out that information is at the heart of this new war. In order to fight it, we must know whom to fight and how to fight them. In the age of precision weapons and satellite intelligence, it is often easier to do this on the battlefield than it is in our own neighborhoods. The war has made all of us more defensive and suspicious. Some of this is good–the world is no longer a place where we can be both free and open with ourselves and our personal information and also hope to be safe.

In that context, we present two feature articles in this issue to help you protect your vital information from those who prey on the naive. We hope our cover story on identity theft can serve as a good primer on protecting vital information from theft and fraud. While identity fraud is a criminal act perpetrated by scam artists, it can also be used by terrorists to gain access to our country illegally. We also have a feature on hardware firewalls that not only helps users select the right hardware firewall/router for their home network (hint: the Linksys EtherFast Cable/DSL Router) but teaches users how to install, configure, and maintain a firewall product. This is one of the first steps in protecting your vital information from identity theft and other nefarious uses.

The information war must also be fought at every level of government, which is one mission of the new Department of Homeland Security. The purpose of my meeting with Mark Forman was to interview him about the federal government’s efforts to develop counter-terrorism information systems and to protect citizens’ e-government activities. That interview also appears in these pages. The picture that emerges is one of immense challenges. Fortunately, we are a lot further along in protecting our country and its vital information than we were prior to 9/11. But we are just at the 10-yard line with 90 yards to go before we can once again feel safe from terrorists.

No one can emerge from the memorials in Washington, D.C., without understanding the great costs of war. No one can emerge from Ground Zero in New York without knowing the costs of doing nothing. We all have a role in helping our country minimize the costs of both action and inaction.

As I stood steps away from the colossal statue of Lincoln, it occurred to me that this tension has never been more eloquently expressed than on the Gettysburg battlefield, “….that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

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