More Cops on the Net? Privacy Groups Say No

WASHINGTON (04/07/2000) - With federal authorities preparing to conduct broad new surveillance of the Internet, privacy advocates and members of Congress are sounding the alarm about the potential trampling of constitutional rights.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation is asking Congress for more than $75 million for the next fiscal year to fund a massive expansion of its information-technology capabilities, including "Digital Storm," a computer-based digital collection system for monitoring wiretaps. The FBI also is proposing "Casa de Web," a program designed to archive and analyze audio and data information. Meanwhile, the Securities and Exchange Commission plans to start using a Web crawler to monitor messages on Web sites and news groups for signs of stock market fraud.

Law enforcement authorities anxious to ride herd on the Internet are aided by the fact that federal electronic-surveillance laws haven't been updated since 1986, well before the dawn of the commercial Internet. That troubles privacy advocates, who are urging Congress to update the laws. Rep. Charles Canady, R-Fla., said Congress should consider whether existing laws are enough to safeguard the Fourth Amendment, which bars unreasonable searches and seizures.

Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., said the new law enforcement proposals would "vacuum in new information off the Internet to massage it - and perhaps, the fear is, to abuse it."

The FBI points to episodes such as the recent spate of distributed denial of service attacks on leading e-commerce Web sites as justification for expanding police power. "Our vulnerability to computer crime is astonishingly high and threatens not only our financial well-being and our privacy, but also this nation's critical infrastructure," says Deputy Assistant U.S. Attorney General Kevin Di Gregory, who testified today before a U.S. House Judiciary subcommittee.

Di Gregory said the federal government is "committed to protecting the privacy rights of individuals." He added that if police are "too timid in responding to cyber crime, however, we will in effect render cyberspace a safe haven for criminals and terrorists to communicate and carry out crime."

James Dempsey, senior staff counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology, warned the subcommittee that current privacy laws are no longer strong enough to guarantee personal rights under the Fourth Amendment in the face of increased use of sophisticated technological tools by law enforcement. Dempsey said existing subpoena and wiretap rules are too lax to handle Internet-based law enforcement.

"It should not be the end of the privacy debate to say that technological change takes information outside the protection of the Fourth Amendment as interpreted by the courts 25 years ago," Dempsey says. "What we need is to translate the Fourth Amendment's vision of limited government power and personal privacy to the global, decentralized, networked environment of the Internet."

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