Patrice Riemens on Sun, 22 Aug 1999 15:58:26 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> FBI wants to hack your PC (fwd)

Justice Dept. Mulls Covert-Action Bill

By Robert OHarrow Jr.  
Washington Post Staff Writer 
Friday, August 20, 1999; Page A1

The Justice Department wants to make it easier for law
enforcement authorities to obtain search warrants to
secretly enter suspects' homes or offices and disable
security on personal computers as a prelude to a wiretap or
further search, according to documents and interviews with
Clinton administration officials.

In a request set to go to Capitol Hill, Justice officials
will ask lawmakers to authorize covert action in response to
the growing use of software programs that encrypt, or
scramble, computer files, making them inaccessible to anyone
who does not have a special code or "key," according to an
Aug. 4 memo by the department that describes the plan.

Justice officials worry that such software "is increasingly
used as a means to facilitate criminal activity, such as
drug trafficking, terrorism, white-collar crime, and the
distribution of child pornography," according to the memo,
which has been reviewed by the Office of Management and
Budget and other agencies.

Legislation drafted by the department, called the Cyberspace
Electronic Security Act, would enable investigators to get a
sealed warrant signed by a judge permitting them to enter
private property, search through computers for passwords and
install devices that override encryption programs, the
Justice memo shows.

The law would expand existing search warrant powers to allow
agents to penetrate personal computers for the purpose of
disabling encryption. To extract information from the
computer, agents would still be required to get additional
authorization from a court.

The proposal is the latest twist in an intense, years-long
debate between the government and computer users who want to
protect their privacy by encrypting documents.

Although Justice officials say their proposal is "consistent
with constitutional principles," the idea has alarmed civil
libertarians and members of Congress.

(Funny Hippy's comment: "Yes, the proposal is fully consistent with the
Constitution...of China")

"They have taken the cyberspace issue and are using it as
justification for invading the home," said James Dempsey,
senior staff counsel at the Center for Democracy and
Technology, an advocacy group in the District that tracks
privacy issues.

Police rarely use covert entry to pave the way for
electronic surveillance. For example, federal law
enforcement agencies obtained court approval just 34 times
last year under eavesdropping statutes to install
microphones, according to the 1998 wiretap report issued by
the Administrative Office of the Unites States Courts.

David L. Sobel, general counsel at the Electronic Privacy
Information Center, predicted the number of secret break-ins
by police would soar if the proposal is adopted because
personal computers offer such a tantalizing source of
evidence for investigators -- including memos, diaries,
e-mail, bank records and a wealth of other data.

"Traditionally, the concept of 'black bag' jobs, or
surreptitious entries, have been reserved for foreign
intelligence," Sobel said. "Do we really want to alter the
standard for physical entry?"

The proposal follows unsuccessful efforts by FBI Director
Louis J. Freeh and other Justice officials to secure laws
requiring computers or software to include "back doors" that
would enable investigators to sidestep encryption.

Those proposals, most notably one called Clipper Chip, have
been criticized by civil libertarians and have received
little support in Congress.

In a snub of the administration, more than 250 members of
Congress have co-sponsored legislation that would prohibit
the government from mandating "back doors" into computer

"We want to help law enforcement deal with the new
technologies. But we want to do it in ways that protect the
privacy rights of law-abiding citizens," said Rep. Robert W.
Goodlatte (R-Va.), who originally sponsored the legislation,
known as the Security and Freedom Through Encryption Act.
Goodlatte said the Justice Department's proposal might upset
the "very finely tuned balance" between law enforcement
power and civil liberties.

But Justice Department officials say there is an
increasingly urgent need for FBI agents and other federal
investigators to get around encryption and other security

"We've already begun to encounter [encryption's] harmful
effects," said Justice spokeswoman Gretchen Michael. "What
we've seen to date is just the tip of the iceberg."

The proposed law also would clarify how state and federal
authorities can seek court orders to obtain software
encryption "keys" that suspects might give to others for
safekeeping. Although few people share such keys now,
officials anticipate that they will do so more often in the

Administration officials played down the potential impact on
civil liberties. In interviews, two officials said the law
would actually bolster privacy protections by spelling out
the requirements for court oversight of cyber-surveillance
and the limits on how information obtained in a search could
be used.

"The administration is supportive of encryption. Encryption
is a way to provide privacy, but it has to be implemented in
a way that's consistent with other values, such as law
enforcement," said Peter P. Swire, the chief White House
counselor for privacy. "In this whole debate, we have to
strike the right balance."

Computer specialists predict that people under investigation
will take countermeasures.

"It's 'Spy vs. Spy,' " said Lance Hoffman, director of the
Cyberspace Policy Institute at George Washington University,
who praised the administration for raising the issue but
expressed skepticism about the proposal as it was described
to him.

"I'd be leery if I were the government. . . . They have to
be real careful," he said.

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