Hackers and privacy advocates everywhere were stunned to hear that the US may be pressing for legislation which would make computer crime a terrorist act. The result would be that convicted hackers could face life imprisonment with no chance of parole.
Meeting on Capitol Hill this week, the US Justice Department is apparently urging the Bush administration to rush the Anti Terrorism Act through Congress.
The 25-page proposal gives the Government extended powers for conducting electronic surveillance and accessing records, with an extra emphasis on the ability to detain "terrorists" suspected of using such technologies to further their plans.
The document proposes a list of "Federal terrorism offences" which typically include the assassination of officials, bombing and homicides, and politically motivated manslaughter.
But the list also includes extracts from the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, effectively making it a terrorist act to break into a computer for the purposes of damage, sabotage, or obtaining information of value, or to release a malicious program that intentionally damages a system, like a virus.
Convicted hackers would have DNA samples placed in a Federal database that is currently reserved for the likes of murderers, rapists and kidnappers.
Marc Rotenberg, of the Electronic Privacy Information Centre, said that congress ought to "proceed particularly carefully" this week. He explained that the mix of provisions proposed in this legislation would allow for the monitoring of electronic communications much more easily than is currently permitted by law.
It would even allow for the exercising of such powers in "cases completely unrelated to terrorism", such as using the controversial Carnivore system to routinely capture click-stream data from internet users, tap phone lines and seize voicemail.
Rotenberg conceded that "it may be appropriate for Congress to act on a few matters quickly", such as "improving border security and ensuring adequate resources for translation and interpretation".
But he insisted that "the vast majority of legislative recommendations now being faxed around Washington create sweeping surveillance authority without justification. The adoption now of any new law enforcement powers unrelated to the investigation and prevention of terrorist acts should be opposed."
Other advocates have expressed greater fear at the proposals, labelling the announcement as "frightening".
One said that the legislation could allow the authorities "to confiscate computer equipment for nothing more than a suspicion that it was used for computer crime. The police will be able to use the fact that you had a computer as indicative of the fact that it was used in a computer crime."
But Attorney General John Ashcroft, who is pressing for the swift adoption of the proposal, defended the measures. "I don't believe that our definition of terrorism is so broad," he said. "It is broad enough to include things like assaults on computers, and assaults designed to change the purpose of government."
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