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Cyberspace has back doors for international peeping
© St. Petersburg Times, published June 4, 2000
The U.S. media don't do a very good job covering what's going on in the rest of the world. The New York Times, one of this country's most internationally oriented papers, has 42 reporters in its Washington bureau but only 13 for all of Europe. News agencies don't give much broadcast time or print space to international meetings because they know most Americans find the issues too remote and complex to pay them much mind.
The U.S. Department of Justice knows that, too. And it has been exploiting this inattention in a wily attempt to expand the power of law enforcement both here and abroad.
Policies on encryption and surveillance the department couldn't get past Congress because of their adverse impact on civil liberties are being rerouted through international treaties and conventions.
David Banisar, an attorney and senior fellow at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, has dubbed the practice "policy laundering" -- which, he says, is when "you take a dirty something, like money but in this case policy, and you wash it through some international organization to make it look (acceptable)." Banisar says the Justice Department has been at this game for years.
"It's a lot easier to get bad proposals adopted when the meetings are held in faraway places and closed to the public and press," Banisar writes. "(Then the policy is brought) back to the U.S. as an international treaty -- which obliges Congress to enact it."
Most recently, the Justice Department was reportedly up to its elbows in guiding European policies on law enforcement in the computer age. Calls to the department for comment went unanswered.
The Council of Europe's "Draft Convention on Cyber-crime," was released on April 27, and, according to Banisar and his COE sources, the Justice Department's Computer Crime Division was "very active" in its development. When finalized, the convention is intended to be the first international treaty on computer crime. It will be open to adoption by the 41 COE countries, which cover most of Central and Western Europe, and to the other countries involved in its drafting -- the U.S., Canada, Japan and South Africa.
What goodies have been slipped into this legally binding text? A requirement that every country in the alliance adopt laws that force people to turn over encryption keys at government request, so the state can decode your e-mail and stored computer files.
It's a retread of the key recovery policy the Justice Department has been unsuccessful in getting passed here, because it violates the right against self-incrimination. Apparently, Justice thinks that just because something is harmful to American freedoms doesn't mean it can't be repackaged and sold to our overseas partners.
Another convention provision would force Internet service providers to retain detailed records of their users in order to give law enforcement the ability to trace a message back to its source.
Conveniently, this policy directly responds to the concerns raised about online anonymity and traceability in a recently released Justice Department report on crime and the Internet.
Republican congressman Bob Barr of Georgia, a watchdog for our rights in Congress, says knowing the way the Justice Department operates, he's not surprised it's actively working overseas to get expansive law enforcement powers through an end run. He strongly asserts that this kind of activity is outside the bounds of legislative authority: "It's subverting the legislative process, it's violative of separation of powers and it's extremely dangerous. Something needs to be done or we might as well shut down Congress -- all pack up and go home."
According to Barry Steinhardt, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union, the department's global strategy isn't just aimed at copping more police powers here, it includes trying to "internationalize" broad wiretapping capabilities.
"In Russia," Steinhardt says, "they have a presidential directive . . . requiring telecommunications providers, especially (Internet providers), to build back doors for the government. I had a conversation with a couple of members of the Duma who said they had meetings with people from the U.S. Justice Department in Russia who were there teaching them how to do this."
The Justice Department is so agitated by the prospect of cybercrime and terrorism that it's giving the rest of the world the technical and legal expertise to spy on people. Those black helicopters have an American eagle on their sides. Maybe someone should alert the media.
© St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.