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