New Era of Electronic Snooping Draws Static
ELECTRONIC eavesdropping has advanced to the point where police can sit in a van outside a house and tell what a person is typing on a computer inside.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
It's that kind of capability President Clinton now wants to see used more often as he moves to expand the surveillance powers of law-enforcement agencies.
The catalyst for the Clinton proposal is last month's terrorist bombing in Oklahoma City. But Clinton's legislative response to the blast has its skeptics. Civil-liberties groups, and even some Republicans say that the administration's proposals have little to do with terrorism and could broaden police powers unnecessarily. The proposal comes against the backdrop of an increase in electronic surveillance nationwide.
Last year, for example, US courts granted law-enforcement agencies a record 1,154 electronic-surveillance orders, according to the Administrative Office of the United States Courts. The total was nearly 200 more than in 1993, which also set a record.
But police do not appear to be carrying out aggressive campaigns against specific groups -- as they did against anti-Vietnam War protesters and the Black Panthers 25 years ago, though their ability to conduct surveillance is broader and more powerful today.
Instead, law-enforcement agencies have begun what former Massachusetts Institute of Technology sociology professor Gary Marx calls ''the new surveillance.''
''The character of surveillance has changed,'' agrees Marc Rotenberg, director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a public-interest research group in Washington, D.C.
''What grew up in the [former FBI Director J. Edgar] Hoover years and reached its apex in the '60s and early '70s was the targeted approach, where groups were singled out.''
But today, he says, ''Through technology and the growing power of law enforcement generally, we have routinized the practice of surveillance. We have been able to bring under the government's eye a much wider slice of the population.''
Law enforcement's use of other technologies also appears on the rise. Authorities are linking together their computerized databases for faster access to information. And increasingly sensitive devices -- night scopes, parabolic microphones, long-range telephoto lenses -- continue to enable access behind closed doors.
''The new surveillance,'' Professor Marx wrote in his book ''Undercover,'' ''transcends distance, darkness, and physical barriers.... Physical limitations and, to some extent, human inefficiency have lost their usefulness as unplanned protectors of liberty.''
A technology called forward-looking infrared radar, for example, can ''look'' through walls and ceilings to detect grow lights for plants, says Mr. Rotenberg. If police suspect someone is growing marijuana in their home and use the radar, is it good detective work or an invasion of privacy?
Should these technologies require a warrant? Federal courts have reached different answers, he says, and so far the US Supreme Court has not stepped in.
The shock of last month's Oklahoma City bombing has pushed these privacy concerns into the background for now. The Clinton administration last week put forward its plan that, among other things, would relax some restrictions on electronic surveillance. The proposals include:
* Fewer restrictions on ''pen registers'' and ''trap and trace'' devices.
These technologies allow agents to track the telephone numbers a suspect is dialing as well as the phone numbers of the people calling him.
When federal agents want to use these devices in ''national security'' cases, US courts currently require more compelling proof of a threat than in routine criminal cases. Clinton's proposal would drop the higher standard.