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FBI, DoJ want new Net monitoring toys

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There seems to be no end to the shopping list of Orwellian tools the FBI and Reno Department of Justice are straining to acquire. The FBI is seeking US $75 million from Congress for a massive data-gathering systems upgrade, which will include a new system called 'Digital Storm' that simplifies and accelerates the collection of electronic traffic carried by telephone lines and mobile phones. Another proposed system would create "the foundation for an up-to-date, flexible digital collection infrastructure" for wiretaps under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the Bureau says. Sounds a lot like the National Security Agency's ECHELON spy system, we're thinking. Yet a third initiative would develop an 'enterprise database' to enable agents to analyse large amounts of data and share it via a secure network. FBI officials and US Attorney General Janet Reno endlessly claim that the Bureau's IT systems need to be upgraded to keep pace with criminal activities, especially on the Net. The FBI estimates that the technological improvements it desires would streamline data mining and analysis so well that the number of approved wiretaps could grow by 300 percent in the next decade. "The explosion and availability of open source information, and the number of information bases and data sources that can and should be searched, becomes formidable," the Bureau's budget request document says. But Capitol Hill has remained somewhat cool to the FBI's repeated requests, chiefly because privacy concerns weigh so heavily with voters. Law-and-order plays well among the populace, but there is a crucial difference between hiring more beat-cops and setting up a secret domestic spy network, a distinction to which voters, hence Members, are particularly sensitive. This is precisely why Janet Reno never opens her mouth in Congressional testimony without mentioning terrorists, kidnappers, and exploited children. She hopes her child-protective hype will persuade the average person that remote intrusions into their privacy are fit offerings to the tender, innocent sprouts on whose altar most of us routinely sacrifice the bulk of our personal pleasures and freedoms. But Representative Robert Barr (Republican, Georgia) says the FBI has developed tunnel vision from its obsession with terrorism, and shows little regard for the social impact of its ambitions. "They're saying, we need to do whatever it takes," Barr noted. In this, and election year, the outcome for the FBI and DoJ is uncertain. No Member can afford to be seen as soft on crime, or on privacy. Exercising the better part of valour may provide a third way, with electronic surveillance budget amendments being punted into the 107th Congress' lap. ®

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