- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 19, 2006

Thanks to the U.S. Senate’s remarkable but well-known lack of backbone, nations such as Albania, Croatia, Uganda and many others now will be able to call up the U.S. Justice Department and find out as much as they would like about anything you do with your computer.

At this point, you probably wonder why you haven’t read about this. Frankly, there’s not much reason you would have, unless you read some relatively obscure publications that focus mostly on technology issues. Another reason you wouldn’t likely have heard of it is, of course, that most major media outlets ignored the issue entirely, largely due to how the Senate essentially trashed your online privacy — by voice vote the night before heading home for another summer recess.

The issue at hand is the so-called Cybercrime Treaty, drafted by European bureaucrats and championed by the Bush administration. The treaty creates an international law enforcement mechanism for investigators in any signatory country to gain access to private information in another country (such as the United States). In essence, these other nations now can “borrow” law enforcement officers of another nation (again, most likely the U.S.), and use them to investigate any alleged crimes that involved somehow, at some point, using a computer.

For example, a cop in South Africa might be investigating an online poker site that has violated some obscure provisions of South African law. Let’s then say you visited that same poker site, played a few hands with a South African national and logged out. Under this new treaty, the South African government can demand that U.S. federal agents visit your Internet Service Provider or ISP, demand from that ISP access about your online activities and turn that information over to the foreign government. Of course, this would all happen without your knowledge.

Similarly, if law enforcement officials in another signatory nation with much stricter gun control laws than ours, decide there’s some evidence on a U.S. citizen’s computer in this country that they say is related to an anti-firearms prosecution, all they need do is ring up our Justice Department and request the information. It matters not that the offense in the other country triggering the investigation might not be a crime under U.S. law.

Aside from this treaty’s overly broad reach, it will do little or nothing to accomplish its stated purpose: fighting true, computer-related crime. The Internet’s reality is that it is completely borderless. A criminal investigated in one country can simply pull up stakes and locate his activities to another country that has not signed the Cybercrime Treaty. A credit card fraud ring can simply operate just as well from Cambodia as it from Canada; all it needs is an active connection to the Internet.

Though it won’t prevent crime, the Cybercrime Treaty will make your online privacy subject to the whims of “law enforcement” officials in foreign nations. If you think your personal information is safe in the hands of the governments of places like Albania, Croatia and Uganda, think again. The private information they obtain via this treaty is about as likely to be used to commit fraud as to prevent it.

Most senators who voted to ratify the treaty are blissfully unaware of, or unconcerned about these facts. The leadership, at the White House’s request, decided to vote on the treaty without any substantive hearings or floor debate. It was approved by voice vote, so no senator had to take a public position on it.

Though the treaty has been passed, there may still be some way to minimize the damage it can wreak on citizens’ online privacy. The House, for example, could withhold funds from U.S. agencies to spend on enforcing it.

In the final analysis, it is critical that all Americans who care about computer privacy, and all who may be concerned about the long reach of regimes in other countries to invade their privacy, quickly launch a flanking move to derail this latest power grab by a Republican president and Senate. Otherwise, any tinhorn despot in another country will be able to easily find out what you’ve ordered on the Internet or to whom you’ve sent your latest politically motivated e-mail.

Bob Barr is a former Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Georgia and a former U.S. Attorney there.

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