White House dives into cybercrime debate

The Clinton administration formally waded into the cybercrime debate this week by forwarding a proposal to Capitol Hill that calls for enhancing law enforcement's ability to conduct wiretaps while creating new privacy protections.

Justice Department officials sent what they call the "Enhancement of Privacy and Public Safety in Cyberspace Act" to House and Senate leaders on Monday, spelling out the details of a proposal first outlined by White House Chief of Staff John Podesta two weeks ago.

The 19-page proposal, accompanied by 37 pages of explanation, combines new authority for law enforcers to conduct wiretaps across state lines with additional privacy protections for certain types of electronic communication, including e-mail.

No legislators have yet stepped forward to introduce the proposed bill, and Justice Department officials did not return phone calls seeking an explanation of why the measure was sent to Congress while it is in recess.

In the Justice Department letter sent to House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-IL, and Vice President Al Gore in his capacity as president of the Senate, Assistant Attorney General Robert Raben said the proposed bill would "harmonize the standards for intercepting electronic, wire, and cable communication." The task would be accomplished, he wrote, by raising the legal standard under which police conduct e-mail surveillance-and lower the standard for cable modem transmissions-to that which is employed for telephone wiretaps.

The measure also would enhance the ability of law enforcement to conduct national "trap and trace" orders that seek the phone numbers of individuals who call the suspect of investigation, while at the same time specifying that a judge would have the power to deny such requests, Raben wrote.

Center for Democracy and Technology Executive Director Jerry Berman said that while he was heartened by the administration's recognition of the need to update surveillance laws, he added that "in many areas, it seems that the balance between law enforcement and privacy comes down too strongly on the law enforcement side."

"We think there needs to be significant privacy enhancements to strike the right balance," Berman said.

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