The Senate Judiciary Committee will examine proposed Justice Department guidelines that would give federal investigators new license to mine publicly available databases and monitor Web use.
Since Sept. 11, Congress has enacted legislation that greatly expands law enforcement's ability to monitor communications through the so-called Patriot Act. America's allies have also sought to bolster laws aimed at aiding investigators, with the European Parliament last week approving guidelines that would force Internet companies to preserve data about their sites for possible future investigations.
FBI guidelines from Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller would allow field agents to gather information outside of criminal investigations, relaxing regulations set in the 1970s. The new rules, by contrast, would authorize field agents to attend public meetings freely and request warrants with less interference from the main office. In addition, the rules would allow the FBI to monitor public Internet sites, libraries and religious institutions.
Agency supporters say the lifting of monitoring restrictions opens the gate to investigation tools that have been unaccountably denied to the FBI until now.
Technology ranging from data mining to surveillance cameras can be tied together to form an easily searchable database of people's religious, political and personal preferences. This enables the FBI, based on a hunch, to investigate--and possibly jail--people.
Law enforcement for the most part has always been able to get information through a third party, such as a database company or an Internet service provider, via methods including subpoenas. Meanwhile, those who compile databases are grappling with the plan, wondering if they're going to be forced into the role of skippers on new FBI fishing expeditions.
Furthermore, previous attempts to tie databases to crime have often failed, underscoring the risks of relying on technology as a cop. That's not to say that technology can't...