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Alternative Anti-Terror Bill Rejects Life Sentence For Hackers

Anti-terrorism legislation proposed by leaders of the House Judiciary

Committee this week omits a Justice Department plan to make computer

hacking a federal terrorism offense, punishable by life imprisonment

without the possibility of parole.

But electronic civil liberties groups continue to warn about the enhanced

Internet surveillance powers that would be granted to law enforcement

agencies under the proposal.

House Judiciary Committee chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and

ranking Democrat John Conyers (D-Mich.) introduced the Provide Appropriate

Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (PATRIOT) Act on

Monday, as an alternative to the Bush Administration's Anti-Terrorism Act


Both proposals would expand the government's legal power to conduct

electronic surveillance, access business records, and detain suspected


Electronic civil libertarians reacted with concern last week after

SecurityFocus reported that the Bush proposal classifies most computer

crimes as "Federal terrorism offenses," exposing hackers to mandatory DNA

sampling, property seizure under the mob-busting RICO statutes, and a

maximum penalty of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

"Treating low-level computer crimes as terrorist acts is not an

appropriate response to recent events," said Electronic Frontier

Foundation (EFF) executive director Shari Steele in a statement last week.

"A relatively harmless online prankster should not face a potential life

sentence in prison."

The proposed PATRIOT Act is based on the Justice Department proposal, but

it hones the list of computer crimes that qualify as terrorism, removing

from the list the section of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act that makes

it a felony to crack a computer for the purpose of obtaining "anything of


Other computer crimes remain on the list, specifically launching a

destructive computer program, making an extortionate threat to damage a

computer, or cracking a government computer and stealing sensitive

information. But to qualify as terrorism under the proposal, any crime,

computer-related or not, would have to be "calculated to influence or

affect the conduct of government by intimidation or coercion; or to

retaliate against government conduct."

"They've added a subsection that modified the whole concept of federal

terrorism offence," says EFF senior staff attorney Lee Tien. "So that

really removes a lot of concern surrounding that particular issue."

But the EFF and other advocacy groups object to the expanded electronic

surveillance powers that would be granted to law enforcement under


Among other measures, PATRIOT would codify the FBI's current practice of

spying on Internet users without a wiretap warrant, when the surveillance

is for the limited purpose of monitoring "routing" and "addressing"

information, such as the email addresses a netizen corresponds with, or

the web sites he or she visits.

"Our basic position is that the changes that have been made in the bill so

far are relatively small," said Jim Dempsey, deputy director of the Center

for Democracy and Technology (CDT), in a conference call with reporters

Tuesday. "Some very major issues need to be resolved before it can be said

that this legislation is not fundamentally opening up the Internet and

other communications to unwarranted surveillance."

Unlike the Justice Department proposal, under PATRIOT the new surveillance

powers would carry an expiration date: December 31st, 2003.

The Act is scheduled for markup in the House Judiciary committee


In the Senate, Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has

introduced his own anti-terrorism bill, which is also more restrained than

the Justice Department proposal. Attorney General John Ashcroft met with

Leahy Tuesday morning.

"I'm deeply concerned about the rather slow pace with which we seem to be

making this come true for America," Ashcroft later told reporters. "We

need to be able to put tools in place that would help us disrupt or

prevent additional terrorist acts to which we might be susceptible." By Kevin Poulsen

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