Justice Dept. Pushes For Power to Unlock PC Security Systems

Fri, 20 Aug 1999 08:59:34 -0400

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I'm a bit verklempt. Discuss amongst yourselves.


Justice Dept. Pushes For Power to
Unlock PC Security Systems
Covert Acts Could Target Homes, Offices

By Robert O'Harrow Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 20, 1999; Page A01

The Justice Department wants to make it easier for law
enforcement authorities to obtain search warrants to
secretly enter suspects' homes or offices and disable
security on personal computers as a prelude to a wiretap
or further search, according to documents and interviews
with Clinton administration officials.

In a request set to go to Capitol Hill, Justice officials
will ask lawmakers to authorize covert action in
response to the growing use of software programs that
encrypt, or scramble, computer files, making them
inaccessible to anyone who does not have a special code
or "key," according to an Aug. 4 memo by the department
that describes the plan.

Justice officials worry that such software "is
increasingly used as a means to facilitate criminal
activity, such as drug trafficking, terrorism, white-collar
crime, and the distribution of child pornography,"
according to the memo, which has been reviewed by the
Office of Management and Budget and other agencies.

Legislation drafted by the department, called the
Cyberspace Electronic Security Act, would enable
investigators to get a sealed warrant signed by a judge
permitting them to enter private property, search through
computers for passwords and install devices that
override encryption programs, the Justice memo shows.

The law would expand existing search warrant powers
to allow agents to penetrate personal computers for the
purpose of disabling encryption. To extract information
from the computer, agents would still be required to get
additional authorization from a court.

The proposal is the latest twist in an intense, years-long
debate between the government and computer users who
want to protect their privacy by encrypting documents.

Although Justice officials say their proposal is
"consistent with constitutional principles," the idea has
alarmed civil libertarians and members of Congress.

"They have taken the cyberspace issue and are using it as
justification for invading the home," said James
Dempsey, senior staff counsel at the Center for
Democracy and Technology, an advocacy group in the
District that tracks privacy issues.

Police rarely use covert entry to pave the way for
electronic surveillance. For example, federal law
enforcement agencies obtained court approval just 34
times last year under eavesdropping statutes to install
microphones, according to the 1998 wiretap report
issued by the Administrative Office of the Unites States

David L. Sobel, general counsel at the Electronic
Privacy Information Center, predicted the number of
secret break-ins by police would soar if the proposal is
adopted because personal computers offer such a
tantalizing source of evidence for investigators --
including memos, diaries, e-mail, bank records and a
wealth of other data.

"Traditionally, the concept of 'black bag' jobs, or
surreptitious entries, have been reserved for foreign
intelligence," Sobel said. "Do we really want to alter the
standard for physical entry?"

The proposal follows unsuccessful efforts by FBI
Director Louis J. Freeh and other Justice officials to
secure laws requiring computers or software to include
"back doors" that would enable investigators to sidestep

Those proposals, most notably one called Clipper Chip,
have been criticized by civil libertarians and have
received little support in Congress.

In a snub of the administration, more than 250 members
of Congress have co-sponsored legislation that would
prohibit the government from mandating "back doors"
into computer systems.

"We want to help law enforcement deal with the new
technologies. But we want to do it in ways that protect
the privacy rights of law-abiding citizens," said Rep.
Robert W. Goodlatte (R-Va.), who originally sponsored
the legislation, known as the Security and Freedom
Through Encryption Act. Goodlatte said the Justice
Department's proposal might upset the "very finely tuned
balance" between law enforcement power and civil

But Justice Department officials say there is an
increasingly urgent need for FBI agents and other federal
investigators to get around encryption and other security

"We've already begun to encounter [encryption's]
harmful effects," said Justice spokeswoman Gretchen
Michael. "What we've seen to date is just the tip of the

The proposed law also would clarify how state and
federal authorities can seek court orders to obtain
software encryption "keys" that suspects might give to
others for safekeeping. Although few people share such
keys now, officials anticipate that they will do so more
often in the future.

Administration officials played down the potential
impact on civil liberties. In interviews, two officials
said the law would actually bolster privacy protections
by spelling out the requirements for court oversight of
cyber-surveillance and the limits on how information
obtained in a search could be used.

"The administration is supportive of encryption.
Encryption is a way to provide privacy, but it has to be
implemented in a way that's consistent with other values,
such as law enforcement," said Peter P. Swire, the chief
White House counselor for privacy. "In this whole
debate, we have to strike the right balance."

Computer specialists predict that people under
investigation will take countermeasures.

"It's 'Spy vs. Spy,' " said Lance Hoffman, director of the
Cyberspace Policy Institute at George Washington
University, who praised the administration for raising
the issue but expressed skepticism about the proposal as
it was described to him.

"I'd be leery if I were the government. . . . They have to
be real careful," he said.

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