Civil liberties advocates are gearing up to force a long fight — instead of a quick surrender — over a proposal by the Department of Justice to vastly expand its wiretapping and surveillance capabilities.
The proposal puts the Internet and other communications technologies in the crosshairs of the governments new war on terrorism.
If Congress were to pass the proposal, authorities would have sweeping new powers to freely snoop on U.S. citizens on the phone and online, said Jim Dempsey, deputy director of the Center for Democracy and Technology.
Clutching a copy of the governments Sept. 19 draft proposal at a press conference last week announcing a new coalition called In Defense of Freedom, Dempsey rattled off a list of measures in the proposal that trouble him most. They include the extension of low standards used in foreign intelligence gathering to the harvesting of domestic intelligence, and the use of easy-to-get administrative subpoenas to demand business records. The DOJ also wants to apply looser rules for eavesdropping on telephone calls and the Internet. That could easily lead to the government creating online "profiles" of people, based on "a persons pattern of communications," Dempsey said.
The proposal also endorses Carnivore, the departments e-mail surveillance tool. Civil liberties advocates have vehemently denounced Carnivore since they discovered it last year, said David Sobel, general counsel of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
While DOJ officials were unavailable for comment late last week, the department shed light on its reasoning in the proposal.
Under the section explaining why authorities should subject Internet communications to the same standards for investigation as telephone communications, it said, "These amendments will promote effective tracing regardless of the media employed."
The potential costs were already worrying technology officials of the Association for Competitive Technology, who asked the government to consider "the full impact of any proposals that may produce the unintended consequences of limiting consumer security and jeopardizing the future of e-commerce."
Civil liberties advocates were still grappling with the dense stew of legalese in the proposal late last week; a copy was posted to the site of the Center for Democracy and Technology: www.cdt.org.
Dempsey, for example, demonstrated how the proposed change of the word "the" to the word "a" in the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act would give federal authorities the right to apply to domestic intelligence gathering the low standard for gathering intelligence about people outside of the U.S.
"If terms like, foreign power and agent of foreign power can be interpreted as broadly as [the DOJ] would like, then there would be a great deal of effect on the Internet — paradoxically, because the Internet hosts and organizes so much information on a global level," said Lee Tien, a senior staff attorney of the Electronic Frontier Foundation in California. "Its really a rather monstrous proposal. Its so wide-ranging that its really difficult to convey how big a change it would be."
The Senate has already passed one antiterrorism amendment to an appropriations bill, expanding the wiretapping and cybersurveillance powers of law enforcement officers.
Now, the body will wrestle with the DOJ proposal, which goes much further.