- The Washington Times - Friday, March 28, 2008

This column has long held the position that surveillance technology is growing so rapidly that we are entering a new world without having adequately thought about it.

For example, tracking or opening a person’s mail undetected used to be a difficult and time-consuming undertaking. But in the age of e-mail, it can be done easily and quickly on a massive scale.

Countless other examples exist. Instead of drifting into a society we may not like, we should craft a deliberate policy.

I read an article at cnet.com, the computer-news site, that the FBI now is obtaining arrest warrants based on computer clicks: “Cnet has uncovered an unusual and controversial investigative technique in which FBI agents post hyperlinks that purport to lead to illegal videos of minors having sex and then raid the homes of people who click on them.”

According to the Register (www.theregister.co.uk), a major British computer-news site, the FBI agents posted a link seeking photos of a toddler being abused by her father.

That’s ugly. However, a click on a link is a bit shaky as evidence, since the identity of the clicker can’t be determined from the click, especially on an unencrypted wireless network.

Even intention cannot reasonably be assumed. A friend of mine recently was browsing porn sites, which is neither illegal nor uncommon, and accidentally found himself looking at child porn. He was shaken, worried that the FBI might have been watching. Should he erase his entire hard drive in case the pictures are in a temp file somewhere?

From many years as a police reporter, I know that cops, assuredly including the FBI, will expand their powers to the extent possible. They don’t do this with the intention of instituting a police state or undermining the Constitution. They want to catch criminals. They don’t think further.

The problem is that the rapid accretion of new techniques quickly leads to something not planned.

Automated cameras, e-mail interception, license-plate reading on highways, face-recognition (which doesn’t work real well), instant access by police to bank records, recording by border watchers of the books you read, on and on it goes. It adds up.

Now you can have your home invaded on the basis of a computer click. The reason given is to eliminate child pornography, which is, along with fighting terror and maintaining national security, a handy issue.

But once the FBI gains the right to arrest you for going to the wrong site, the road can lead anywhere.

As a reporter with an interest in such things as security, terrorism and military matters, I visit sites dealing with explosives, nuclear weapons, nerve agents and the philosophy of jihad.

The FBI could easily decide this is probable cause and burst through my door. Who but a terrorist would study these things?

If the FBI is watching, it may be legal, meaning that courts may regard it so. But it is something new — not exactly home invasion, not exactly like installing a camera in your living room — but nonetheless intrusive and intimidating.

One after the other, these measures go into effect, never carefully thought out by legislative bodies. We need clear, enforceable laws stating what is and is not permissible.

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