US furor rises over PC wiretap plan

A US government proposal would make it easier for the law to break into people's computers. Privacy-rights groups call it KGB tactics.

A US Department of Justice proposal to make it easier for police to break into homes and access computers is drawing a furious reaction from civil libertarians and high-tech industry trade groups.

The draft legislation, for which the DOJ hopes to find a sponsor in Congress, is dubbed the Cyberspace Electronic Security Act. The law would make it easier for law enforcement officials to obtain from judges a now-rarely-used authorisation to break into a suspect's home and plant a hidden listening device.

But in this case, the computer equivalent of the "listening device" is the authorisation for investigators to disable data-scrambling encryption programs on PCs. (In order to actually copy data from the computer, police would still need a separate warrant from a judge.) "(The proposal) strikes at the heart of the Bill of Rights," said David Sobel, general counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

Noting that judges in all federal and state courts combined only issued 50 warrants for so-called "surreptitious physical entries" last year, Sobel said extending such authorisation to cases involving computer files "would make police break-ins far more common than they are now".

The proposal would "basically allow investigators to booby-trap your computer ahead of time" by disabling encryption, he said. The proposal was most likely spurred by the frustration investigators have experienced when finding encrypted data on computers used by suspected drug dealers and other criminals, he added.

DOJ officials did not respond to requests for interviews Friday. But in a letter to House Speaker Dennis Hastert, acting assistant attorney general Jon Jennings said the new law would aid investigators when information needs to be deciphered "in a timely manner". "While under existing law, law enforcement is provided with different means to collect evidence of illegal activity, these means are rendered wholly insufficient when encryption is used," wrote Jennings in the letter.

"In the context of law enforcement operations, stopping a terrorist attack or seeking to recover a kidnapped child, time is of the essence and may mean the difference between success and catastrophic failure. While existing means of obtaining evidence would remain applicable in a fully-encrypted world, the failure to provide law enforcement with the necessary ability to obtain the plain-text version of the evidence makes existing authorities useless," he wrote.

Noting that the proposal would need to find a sponsor in Congress and then be passed into law before it could take effect, EPIC's Sobel said it could encounter resistance by lawmakers. "I think people in Congress are going to go ballistic over this, particularly since it's coming right on the heels of the FIDNET" controversy, he said. FIDNET -- the controversial proposal to monitor government and some private networks for hacking activity -- came to light earlier this summer and remains in limbo.

Barry Steinhardt, president of the American Civil Liberties Union, said that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has often misused its powers in the past, and could do so again under the DOJ proposal. "There's every reason to believe they're not just going to look at the Mob using the powers sought under the proposal," Steinhardt said. "They'll use this power to interfere with protected speech."

Also condemning the plan were the Computer and Communications Industry Association, the Center for Democracy and Technology, and Americans for Computer Privacy.

The plan is "an unprecedented attempt by the Clinton administration to impose 'big brother' monitoring powers over American citizens", ACP officials said in a statement. "The fact is that current laws provide law enforcement broad powers to obtain information." "This is another attempt by law enforcement to do an end-run (around encryption)," said Ed Black, president of the CCIA. "It offers a real temptation for investigators to overreach and overextend" the current limits on searches and seizures, he said.

"Anybody's vulnerable," Black added. "(This) resembles something the KGB would propose."