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Congress narrows Bush's definition of terrorism

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Anti-terrorism legislation proposed by leaders of the House Judiciary Committee this week omits a Justice Department plan to make computer hacking a federal terrorism offense, punishable by life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

But electronic civil liberties groups continue to warn about the enhanced Internet surveillance powers that would be granted to law enforcement agencies under the proposal.

House Judiciary Committee chairman James Sensenbrenner (Republican, Wisconsin) and ranking Democrat John Conyers (Democrat, Michigan) introduced the Provide Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (PATRIOT) Act on Monday, as an alternative to the Bush Administration's Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA).

Both proposals would expand the government's legal power to conduct electronic surveillance, access business records, and detain suspected terrorists.

Electronic civil libertarians reacted with concern last week after SecurityFocus reported that the Bush proposal classifies most computer crimes as "Federal terrorism offenses," exposing hackers to mandatory DNA sampling, property seizure under the mob-busting RICO statutes, and a maximum penalty of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

"Treating low-level computer crimes as terrorist acts is not an appropriate response to recent events," said Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) executive director Shari Steele in a statement last week. "A relatively harmless online prankster should not face a potential life sentence in prison."

The proposed PATRIOT Act is based on the Justice Department proposal, but it hones the list of computer crimes that qualify as terrorism, removing from the list the section of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act that makes it a felony to crack a computer for the purpose of obtaining "anything of value."

Other computer crimes remain on the list, specifically launching a destructive computer program, making an extortionate threat to damage a computer, or cracking a government computer and stealing sensitive information. But to qualify as terrorism under the proposal, any crime, computer-related or not, would have to be "calculated to influence or affect the conduct of government by intimidation or coercion; or to retaliate against government conduct."

"They've added a subsection that modified the whole concept of federal terrorism offence," says EFF senior staff attorney Lee Tien. "So that really removes a lot of concern surrounding that particular issue."

But the EFF and other advocacy groups object to the expanded electronic surveillance powers that would be granted to law enforcement under PATRIOT.

Among other measures, PATRIOT would codify the FBI's current practice of spying on Internet users without a wiretap warrant, when the surveillance is for the limited purpose of monitoring "routing" and "addressing" information, such as the email addresses a netizen corresponds with, or the web sites he or she visits.

"Our basic position is that the changes that have been made in the bill so far are relatively small," said Jim Dempsey, deputy director of the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), in a conference call with reporters Tuesday. "Some very major issues need to be resolved before it can be said that this legislation is not fundamentally opening up the Internet and other communications to unwarranted surveillance."

Unlike the Justice Department proposal, under PATRIOT the new surveillance powers would carry an expiration date: December 31st, 2003.

The Act is scheduled for markup in the House Judiciary committee Wednesday.

In the Senate, Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy (Democrat, Vermont) has introduced his own anti-terrorism bill, which is also more restrained than the Justice Department proposal. Attorney General John Ashcroft met with Leahy Tuesday morning.

"I'm deeply concerned about the rather slow pace with which we seem to be making this come true for America," Ashcroft later told reporters. "We need to be able to put tools in place that would help us disrupt or prevent additional terrorist acts to which we might be susceptible."

© 2001 SecurityFocus.com, all rights reserved.

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