White House Seeks To Curb Net Spying

The White House and other U.S. government officials say they are working to give Internet users the same level of protection against “wiretapping” that they currently have when talking on the telephone.

The Clinton administration indicated Monday it would propose legislation to clear up the legal confusion surrounding government surveillance into private electronic communications, while still giving law enforcement enough leeway to pursue criminals through electronic means.

The proposed law would set requirements for surveillance in cyberspace similar to the requirements for telephone wiretaps.

Electronic Carnivore

Internet privacy issues have been heating up again, due to recent revelations about an electronic surveillance system nicknamed “Carnivore” that is used by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

Carnivore gives law enforcement authorities the ability to selectively monitor the Internet traffic of individuals. Critics say there is little judicial oversight over the use of Carnivore, which opens the door for abuse of the technology by law enforcement.

FBI agents have to go through a stringent court process to obtain authority to wiretap phone conversations for criminal investigations, but apparently have been able to more easily intercept e-mail and other forms of electronic communication. Due to the many different modes for Internet communications available today, including phone lines, cable networks and wireless, uncertainty has arisen over which laws apply and when.

“It’s time to update and harmonize our existing laws to give all forms of technology the same legislative protections as our telephone conversations,” White House Chief of Staff Joe Podesta told the National Press Club.

Tapping the Source

FBI officials insist the Carnivore system falls under current wiretapping laws, that a court order is required to implement it and that only individual suspects are targeted. However, privacy groups question the system’s ability to scan broad amounts of personal and private data, including information on people who are not the intended targets of criminal investigations.

Facing growing concerns about Carnivore, U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno said last week that the Justice Department intends to look into whether the system was being used in a manner consistent with privacy rights in the Constitution and in federal law.

New Modes of Communication, Outmoded Laws

While e-mail privacy is covered under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986, there is debate over whether that law pertains to e-mail sent via a high-speed cable modem.

At the time the 1986 law was passed, legislators could not foresee the extent to which broadband and other forms of high-speed cable Internet access would penetrate the market. Cable operators have argued that electronic surveillance attempts should meet the requirements of the Cable Act of 1984, one of the stricter laws governing user privacy.

The proposed law discussed by White House Chief of Staff Podesta at the National Press Club on Monday is supposed to clear up the discrepancies.

Too Little, Too Late

Critics of the government’s proposal say the effort is being made too late for it to stand any chance of being passed before the current legislative session ends. The next session starts in 2001.

“In light of the public and Congressional criticism of Carnivore we had hoped and expected far more from an administration that likes to tout its sensitivity to privacy rights,” said Barry Steinhardt of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

Encryption Controls Eased

The U.S. government also said it is easing regulatory controls on exports of encryption software so U.S. companies can better compete in the global marketplace. Encryption software allows users to “scramble” their e-mail and other forms of data to ensure privacy.

Podesta said the new policy will immediately enable U.S. companies to sell complex encryption software to users in several foreign countries, including any country in the European Union, as well as Japan, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic.

The FBI has argued that encryption helps cyber-terrorists keep their activities secret, but the administration was swayed by arguments that U.S. controls hurt only U.S. businesses.

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