DOJ proposes system break-in rights

The US Justice Department is to ask Congress for expanded powers to break into homes and offices to disable security programs of computers in a bill aimed at drug dealers, child pornographers, terrorists and white collar criminals.

The US Justice Department plans to ask Congress for expanded powers to break into homes and offices to disable security programs of computers as part of investigations into criminal suspects, according to news reports.

The DOJ will seek legislation that would allow law enforcement officials to secretly search computer records and install devices to override encryption programs, The Washington Post reported today.

The proposed legislation, called the Cyberspace Electronic Security Act, would target drug dealers, child pornographers, terrorists and white collar criminals, who are making increasing use of encryption programs, the Post report said.

"We've already begun to encounter (encryption's harmful effects)," Justice spokeswoman Gretchen Michael said in the Post story. "What we have seen to date is just the tip of the iceberg."

The proposal is still in draft form, said Peter Swire, chief counsel for privacy at the U.S. Office of Management and the Budget, which has worked on the plan with the Justice Department. "What we need to do is strike a balance that protects privacy but also does not allow criminals a new and unchecked way to communicate with each other," Swire said in a telephone interview today.

Under the plan, law enforcement officers could seek a court-authorized search warrant to enter a home to disable the encryption software of a suspect's computer. Officers would still need additional court approval to take information from the computer, the report in the Post said.

The proposal drew immediate criticism from civil liberties groups and a high tech business group.

"This would really be an unprecedented expansion of investigative authority," David Sobel, general counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C., said in a telephone interview. "With the increasing use of personal computers and encryption software, there is the potential that a large number of cases would occur when that (new power) would be used."

The proposal would also allow investigators to target the computers of people who were not suspects of an investigation, but whose computers held information that pertained to an investigation, said Alan Davidson, staff counsel for the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington, D.C.-based civil liberties and public policy group that follows technology issues.

"It's bringing the surveillance state into the information age," Davidson said.

The high-tech industry is also wary of being drawn into controversy involving the expansion of government powers in relation to information technology, said Ed Black, president and chief executive officer of the Computer &Communications Industry Association, whose member companies employ more than 500,000 people and generate annual revenues of more than US$200 [B] billion.

"We don't want to be made a participant in the surveillance of citizens and consumers," Black said.

The U.S. Department of Justice, in Washington, D.C., can be reached at +1-202-514-2000, or at http://www.usdoj.gov/. The Computers & Communications Industry Association can be reached in Washington, D.C. at +1-202-783-0070, or at http://www.ccianet.org/. The Center for Democracy and Technology can be reached at +1-202-637-9800,or at http:/www.cdt.org/. The Electronic Privacy Information Center, in Washington, D.C., can be reached at +1-202-544-9240, or at http://www.epic.org/.

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