Privacy Advocates Irked by Net Crime Report

Key US privacy groups recently opposed a new White House report that examines the effectiveness of applying existing laws to Internet crime.

President Clinton's Working Group on Unlawful Conduct on the Internet, chaired by Attorney General Janet Reno, set out to establish a framework for law enforcement and policy makers to deal with issues surrounding Internet crime.

The group concluded that some federal laws do not translate well to Internet crime, and that in some situations law enforcement needs more authority to combat online crime.

That sentiment opens the door to new Internet crime legislation and may put key online privacy rights and protections in jeopardy, according to privacy advocates such as the Washington-based Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT).

CDT also warns that aggressive new Internet crime laws could hurt the technology industry and thriving online businesses.

"I'm afraid technology companies will find themselves pressured or legally required to collect and hold more information on their systems about users, so those companies will have that information available when the Government comes looking for it," said Jim Dempsey, senior staff counsel at CDT.

One user agreed.

"I think this is a call to arms for the industry to get its act together and implement safeguards that will minimise Internet crime," said one IS manager at a large food manufacturer who asked to be unnamed. "It needs to self-police."

However, the report, titled The Electronic Frontier: The Challenges of Unlawful Conduct Involving the Use of the Internet, states explicitly that the Federal Government does not expect private companies to become co-regulators.

"Industry should be a voluntary, responsible party in society's fight against crime," according to the report.

Most existing statutes can and should be used to fight Internet crimes, and law enforcement officers should apply these laws just as they do in cases of "offline crimes", the report directs.

The Working Group goes on to assert that Internet crime should be viewed through the same lens as other crimes. Specifically, Internet crime should be considered "in a technology-neutral manner and in a manner that takes account of other important societal interests, such as privacy and protection of civil liberties," the report states.

But there are cases in which current laws are not enough to fight online crime, and law enforcement needs new authority to track down Internet communications across jurisdictional boundaries, both within the United States and abroad, according to the report.

When the report characterised the ability to hide one's identity on the Internet as a "thorny issue", the Working Group drew a scathing response from the American Civil Liberties Union.

"Anonymity on the Internet is not a thorny issue. It is a constitutional right," according to an ACLU letter to Reno drafted recently.

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