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FBI access to e-mail and Web records raises fears
Question of the Day
WASHINGTON (AP) — Invasion of privacy in the Internet age. Expanding the reach of law enforcement to snoop on e-mail traffic or on Web surfing. Those are among the criticisms being aimed at the FBI as it tries to update a key surveillance law.
Federal law requires communications providers to produce records in counterintelligence investigations to the FBI, which doesn’t need a judge’s approval and court order to get them.
They can be obtained merely with the signature of a special agent in charge of any FBI field office and there is no need even for a suspicion of wrongdoing, merely that the records would be relevant in a counterintelligence or counterterrorism investigation. The person whose records the government wants doesn’t even need to be a suspect.
The bureau’s use of these so-called national security letters to gather information has a checkered history.
The bureau engaged in widespread and serious misuse of its authority to issue the letters, illegally collecting data from Americans and foreigners, the Justice Department’s inspector general concluded in 2007. The bureau issued 192,499 national security letter requests from 2003 to 2006.
Weathering that controversy, the FBI has continued its reliance on the letters to gather information from telephone companies, banks, credit bureaus and other businesses with personal records about their customers or subscribers — and Internet service providers.
The law already requires Internet service providers to produce the records, said Dean Boyd, a spokesman for the Justice Department’s national security division. But he said as written it also causes confusion and the potential for unnecessary litigation as some Internet companies have argued they are not always obligated to comply with the FBI requests.
A key Democrat on Capitol Hill, Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont, wants a timeout.
“While the government should have the tools that it needs to keep us safe, American citizens should also have protections against improper intrusions into their private electronic communications and online transactions,” said Leahy, who plans hearings in the fall on this and other issues involving the law.
Critics are lined up in opposition to what the Obama administration wants to do.
“The FBI is playing a shell game,” says Al Gidari, whose clients have included major online companies, wireless service providers and their industry association.
“This is a huge expansion” of the FBI’s authority “and burying it this way in the intelligence authorization bill is really intended to bury it from scrutiny,” Gidari added.
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