Two groups are calling on Congress to take a new look at the governments spying powers in light of new technologies, but the groups are seeking divergent ends: The Bush administration wants fewer limits on its power to spy, while privacy advocates want greater protections for the public.
The opposing pressures on Congress follows the disclosure in December that President Bush authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on people in the United States without a court order, which critics say is prohibited under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
The administration, arguing that terrorists use of technology makes law enforcements job more difficult, is urging Congress to amend FISA to give government officials more flexibility.
At the same time, the Center for Democracy and Technology is urging lawmakers to carefully examine the way that new technologies have already expanded the governments power before amending FISA or any other surveillance laws.
“Technology does in some ways make the governments job harder,” said Jim Dempsey, policy director at CDT.
“On balance, you have to admit that the digital revolution has been a surveillance boon for law enforcement. There is more information more easily available than ever before.”
In its report, “Digital Search & Seizure: Updating Privacy Protections to Keep Pace with Technology,” CDT outlines three trends that are making surveillance capabilities easier and more intrusive and consequently changing the privacy landscape in the United States: storage, location awareness and keystroke logging.
As Web-based services gain in popularity, a growing volume of data will be stored remotely in databases controlled by third parties.
This stored data, such as messages stored with Web mail providers, are entitled to weaker privacy protections than data store on a users computer.
“VOIP will even further change the equation here. The phone conversation, which used to be ephemeral, can now be like e-mail,” Dempsey said.
“With the cost of storage plummeting, people are going to start storing their phone conversations.”
Location information provided by cell phones and other mobile devices also merits greater privacy protections, according to CDT.
The tracking capabilities enabled by todays technologies enables remote monitoring of an individuals movements and can reveal the individuals destinations, acquaintances and activities.
The government should have to show probable cause before obtaining access to such location information, CDT maintains.
The use of surveillance via keystroke logging should also require a greater judicial standard, the report urges.
Keystroke logging is especially intrusive because the target of surveillance isnt given notice, and when lawmakers enacted current privacy protections, they did not contemplate this technology.
CDT, whose members include Microsoft, is also working with industry to develop best practices for safeguarding data.
A coalition among businesses and privacy advocates is needed to get updated privacy laws enacted, said Jerry Berman, CDT president.
“If these products are going to pass a consumer trust test, [businesses] need to be able to say there are protections,” Berman said.