WASHINGTON--The Bush administrations request for broad new electronic surveillance powers cleared a major hurdle last week when a House of Representatives judiciary panel approved anti-terrorism legislation, teeing it up for a vote on the House floor this week.
Lawmakers reined in many of the administrations requests regarding terrorist suspect detention as well as notification of search warrant subjects, but they left most of the wiretap requests intact.
However, wary of enacting unwarranted permanent new police powers in the midst of the national crisis ignited by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, House lawmakers set the expanded surveillance measures to expire at the end of 2003.
The Senate negotiated its version of the bill last week, but it will go directly to the floor for a vote rather than be debated by the chambers judiciary panel. The legislation could be approved and sent to President Bush by the end of the week.
The House bill would allow the government to collect Internet transactional data under the low standard of judicial review required for capturing telephone numbers. But it remains unclear how much information is included in transactional data.
Some lawmakers and privacy advocates remain concerned that the provision may expose protected communications to the government. Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va., said e-mail message lines and Web pages visited should not be available without a full court-issued order based on a showing of probable cause in an investigation, but the question was still open last week.
Although Congress is not moving as rapidly as the administration would like on the new police powers, it is moving faster than businesses and citizens generally can analyze and understand the proposed changes. Even the House judiciary lawmakers agreed to leave several provisions open to further review before this weeks vote.
For network operators that might be affected, responding to the rapidly changing proposals is a daunting prospect.
"I think the industry wants to help law enforcement, and weve often been ahead of them, alerting them to things going on on the Internet," said Dusan Janjic, owner of Rockbridge Global Village Inc., in Lexington, Va. "But at the same time, we as an industry have a duty to protect our customers privacy. I believe there are a lot of ISPs [Internet service providers] who are going to oppose this."
Of particular concern to privacy advocates is the legislations relaxation of judicial standards required to collect surveillance data. The bill would allow the government to use the relatively lenient standard established under the FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) of 1978 to collect evidence in criminal investigations and not just counterintelligence.
"If they have easier access to my customers, whether they spy on one customer or all of them is up to them, and that is the problem," Janjic said. "Im worried about anybody abusing my customers mail."
Lawmakers tried to minimize the financial impact the anti-terrorism legislation would have on network operators. The House panel added a provision late last week to ensure that communications service providers would not be required to redesign their networks to comply with new surveillance capabilities.