Let's Not Snoop on PCs

Congress should reject out of hand a chilling Justice Department request for authority to covertly break into the homes of suspects and search or tamper with their computers.

The department's request stems from its worry about new software programs that allow users to encrypt computer files. Investigators want to obtain suspects' passwords and encryption keys so they can decode their files.

Justice officials correctly point out that drug traffickers, terrorists, and child pornographers use computers to carry out illegal activities. They say criminals are increasingly hiding their activities using ever-more-sophisticated encryption software, and that law-enforcement needs to keep pace.

But that's no excuse for eroding Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure by expanding the justification for covert-action search warrants.

The FBI has fought a years-long battle with members of Congress and the high-tech community who want to protect computer users' privacy. It has unsuccessfully urged a law requiring computermakers to install a "back door" that would let investigators in to decrypt and read computer files.

Police already have the right to enter a premises surreptitiously to install hidden microphones if they obtain the proper search warrant.

But only 50 such warrants were issued last year by federal or state judges. Such cases usually involve espionage or organized crime. The Justice Department argues that investigators would still have to prove to a judge that they had exhausted all alternative means of obtaining the necessary information.

Some are uncomfortable with allowing law-enforcement officials even that much latitude, noting that wiretaps have been abused in the past. The FBI surveillance of Martin Luther King Jr., or state-police covert investigations of antiwar demonstrators and civil-rights workers hint at the potential dangers.

Expanding the use of search warrants would increase authorities' use of and reliance on covert entry, and with it the possibility of further civil-rights violations. Recent administrations' behavior, such as the improper transfer to the Clinton White House of top Republicans' FBI files, provides ample reason to be wary of giving future administrations such authority.

Justice should go back to the drawing board and come up with a proposal less damaging to the Bill of Rights.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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