Wired News Report
Clinton Favors Computer Snooping
by Declan McCullagh
6:00 p.m. 19.Jan.2000 PST
WASHINGTON -- Visions of stealthy black helicopters landing on your lawn and disgorging Nomex-clad troops to steal your PGP keys aren't just for conspiracy theorists.
The Clinton administration wants to be able to send federal agents armed with search warrants into homes to copy encryption keys and implant secret back doors onto computers.
"When criminals like drug dealers and terrorists use encryption to conceal their communications, law enforcement must be able to respond in a manner that will not thwart an investigation or tip off a suspect," Attorney General Janet Reno and Deputy Defense Secretary John Hamre wrote in a seven-page letter to Congress.
The idea first surfaced in mid-1999, when the Justice Department proposed legislation that allowed them to obtain surreptitious warrants and "postpone" notifying the person whose property they entered for 30 days.
The Justice Department's thinking was that if a suspect was using data-scrambling encryption products, the FBI's G-men might need to enter the suspect's home and install software to tap into and decipher scrambled communications.
After vocal objections from civil liberties groups, the administration backed away from the controversial plan. The final draft of the Cyberspace Electronic Security Act (CESA) submitted to Congress had removed the secret-search portions.
But the White House now appears to think it doesn't need new legislation to enter a suspect's computer.
The letter from Reno and Hamre to House Majority Leader Dick Armey says that, in the future, the Feds will use "general authorities" when asking judges to authorize so-called black bag jobs. Commerce Secretary William Daley also signed the letter.
They say that law enforcement should have the ability to "search for keys" without immediately notifying a suspect.
According to legal experts, all current search warrants -- with the exception of the related category of wiretaps -- require police to inform the person his property was entered.
Privacy groups say Americans should be alarmed.
"It sounds like they're returning to the provision in CESA that they backed away from," says Barry Steinhardt, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union.
"The basic principle is that people who are the subject of searches should have notice and the opportunity to challenge the search. This is particularly dangerous since it will be difficult to guarantee that evidence hasn't been tampered with," said Steinhardt. "What they are proposing to do is alter computer files. It's quite a chilling proposal."
"What they're saying is that they want to eliminate that Fourth Amendment requirement or limit it so much to make it meaningless," said Dave Banisar, co-author of the Electronic Privacy Papers. The Fourth Amendment prohibits the government from conducting "unreasonable" searches and seizures.
The Clinton administration cabinet officials wrote the letter this month in their latest exchange with Majority Leader Armey. Although dated 7 January, Armey's office said they received it on Wednesday.
In Armey's letter to Reno on 27 September, the Texas Republican wrote: "Questions remain about the Administration's commitment to personal privacy.... While I understand that this [secret search] provision has been dropped from the most recent draft, the fact that it was ever proposed at all raises concerns in Congress."
In its reply, the administration wrote, "You specifically ask whether law enforcement has the authority to search for keys without notifying the subject. Although some courts have permitted the government to conduct a search, in analogous circumstances, without notifying the target at the time of the search, these same courts have held, and we agree, that in a criminal investigation the government must ultimately provide meaningful notice to the target of the search."
The letter further urges Congress to pass CESA and defends Fidnet, a plan to monitor online intrusions into federal computers.
"Fidnet is entirely aimed at improving the security of government computer systems.... We strongly support its development. Federal computer networks are a favorite target of computer hackers," they say.
Last summer reports said that the system would monitor not just federal computers, but other Internet traffic -- a claim that the FBI assistant general counsel denied as recently as during a panel discussion last week.
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