US bill would treat all hackers as terrorists

The US is planning to go much further than the UK in its treatment of hackers, and faces criticism from civil-rights groups for disproportionate punishment

A major anti-terrorism bill now being considered by the US government has been criticised for disproportionately targeting low-level computer intruders, making small crimes punishable by a penalty of life in prison.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, the main civil liberties group in the US focussing on the digital world, condemned parts of the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) now in Congress, which would treat all computer trespass as terrorism. "Treating low-level computer crimes as terrorist acts is not an appropriate response to recent events," said EFF executive director Shari Steele in a statement. "A relatively harmless online prankster should not face a potential life sentence in prison."

Computer intrusion is already illegal under other laws, the EFF noted.

The Anti-Terrorism Act was introduced in the wake of the terrorist attacks on New York City and the Pentagon on 11 September. Civil rights groups fear that it and other bills could brush aside privacy and human rights protections as governments hunt for secret terrorist activity.

The proposed Act goes a lot further than similar legislation that came into the force in the UK in February 2001. This legislation, called the Terrorism Act 2000, was designed to prevent dissident political groups from using the UK as a base for terrorism and, for the first time, recognised a new threat from cyberterrorists. Definitions of terrorism were widened to include those actions that seriously interfere with or seriously disrupt an electronic system, but only where such actions are designed to influence the government or to intimidate the public.

In the US, the EFF criticised the portion of the new bill that adds low-level computer intrusion -- which could be something as innocuous as a teenager having a look around a commercial Web server -- to the list of "federal terrorism offences". Such offences carry penalties of up to life imprisonment, and give investigators broad powers of asset seizure, as well as threatening those who "harbour" offenders.

Among other provisions, the bill would allow the US government to use information illegally collected by foreign governments against American citizens and would give law enforcers broader powers for monitoring electronic communications.

The EFF charges that the bill would disrupt the fundamental system of checks and balances by which citizens' privacy is protected from law enforcement agencies. "Operating from abroad, foreign governments could do the dirty work of spying on the communications of Americans worldwide," stated EFF senior staff attorney Lee Tien. "US protections against unreasonable search and seizure won't matter."

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