BOB GARFIELD: A George Mason University grad student was just hoping for a doctorate and a job. Instead, his PhD dissertation is being called a "terrorist treasure map" and scaring the bejesus out of the gatekeepers of America's communications infrastructure. That's because his project maps the nation's entire fiber-optic network, overlaying every business and industrial sector in America. The question is: should the map be public information like any other academic research or placed under lock and key? Steve Aftergood directs the Federation of American Scientists' project on government secrecy and he joins me now from Washington, DC. Steve, welcome back to OTM.
STEVEN AFTERGOOD: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: So what can this map do? According to the Washington Post -- I'm quoting here -- "He can click on a bank in Manhattan and see who has communication lines running into it and where. He can zoom in on Baltimore and find the choke point for trucking warehouses." Has he indeed created a road map of the nation's communications vulnerabilities that, that had never existed before?
STEVEN AFTERGOOD: I doubt it. What he's - he himself says that what he did was to compile information that was already in the public domain.
BOB GARFIELD: But if you were a terrorist and you were looking to wreak havoc, it would be like one of those mall maps -- You can bomb here.
STEVEN AFTERGOOD: I don't think it's the right way to look at things. If one were a terrorist, one would not require a, a PhD dissertation on this subject or any other in order to locate a vulnerability. There are vulnerabilities all around us, and the idea that if not for this or that piece of information, we could be perfectly secure, is an illusion.
BOB GARFIELD:Gorman said that government officials and private sector CEOs want his work to be classified by the government! Can it be classified?
STEVEN AFTERGOOD: Strictly speaking, it cannot be. That applies only to government information. The only situation in which the government can seize privately-generated information is when that information concerns nuclear weapons. If I conceive of a design for a nuclear weapon and write it down on a napkin, the government can claim ownership of the napkin and come in and seize it.
BOB GARFIELD:Richard Clarke, the former White House cyber-terrorism chief sai-- told Gorman he should turn his dissertation in for a grade and then burn it. [LAUGHTER] Well apart from voluntary immolation, what do you expect will happen next with this particular piece of research?
STEVEN AFTERGOOD: I am a big believer in people taking responsibility for their own work. Nobody knows this work better than Mr. Gorman, the author, and-- if he is persuaded that there is a real national security concern here, he should act accordingly, and I gather that that is the course of action he has chosen. He is not releasing the work. He - it is apparently being kept in secure storage. I presume that's the right thing to do.
BOB GARFIELD:I guess I'm asking you if -- can you imagine a circumstance where you would change your stripes on this subject -- where you would say well you know what -- at some point the government does have not only the right but the responsibility to step in to suppress otherwise public information.
STEVEN AFTERGOOD: I think that the answer is clearly yes. What's an example? Detailed information on the production and manufacture of biological weapons. Now, I would hate for an admission like that to be turned into an indiscriminate new power of the government to control information. The desire for security is a natural, normal and, and important one. But the desire for absolute security is neurotic. It's neurotic because it is not achievable and because it leads to a self-defeating posture. You end up tying your own hands, diverting resources where they are not productively used, and you can never really solve the problem.
BOB GARFIELD: Now there's another wrinkle on this, and that is not government oversight but scientific oversight.
STEVEN AFTERGOOD:Earlier this year a number of the largest scientific journal publishers issued a statement that from here on out they are going to consider security -- the hazards of publication -- when they review scientific papers for publication in their journals. Last year, for example, a, a group of scientists published a paper on the production of a synthetic polio virus, but the fact of the matter is there's no great solution to this challenge. The science of biological weapons is largely indistinguishable from many areas of life sciences, medical research and so on, and you cannot restrict one without restricting the other.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Steve. Well, once again, thank you very much.
STEVEN AFTERGOOD: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD:Steve Aftergood directs the Federation of American Scientists' project on government secrecy. His newsletter is called Secrecy News.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, cartooning -- both naughty and nice. And taking revenge on telemarketers.