WASHINGTON — In the new hunt to track down would-be terrorists, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft urged an emergency measure Monday that would halt the practice of immediately notifying cable customers that the feds are looking at their phone and Internet usage.
Testifying at a packed hearing on Capitol Hill, Ashcroft said the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2001 will make the “difference between life and death” by strengthening the government’s intelligence gathering and investigative powers.
His statements came nearly two weeks after hijacked jetliners slammed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
The cable provision — which does not affect video programming — is part of a larger effort to make it easier for law enforcement authorities to access electronic and telephone communications without raising suspicion, as well as take a peek at a person’s Internet usage.
Consumer advocates, along with the American Civil Liberties Union, say the sweeping legislation jeopardizes a person’s civil rights and privacy. Critics of mega-media congloms also are wary.
“It’s clear that personal privacy in America is becoming a new victim of these tragic events,” Center for Digital Democracy director Jeff Chester said. “Suspending and weakening civil liberties should be a real concern. The federal government’s move to weaken privacy rules fits into the media industry’s agenda, because they don’t want to have any privacy rules” in order to more easily track information about their customers, Chester said.
Level playing field
But others say the cable section of the Bush administration’s anti-terrorism bill simply makes the playing field even between cablers providing Internet service and regular Internet service providers (ISPs).
According to current law, cablers offering phone and modem services are required to notify a customer when the government hands down a court order for a certain subscriber’s records. Under Ashcroft’s legislation, cablers could legally hold off from notifying a subscriber for 90 days.
Internet-only service providers currently aren’t under any legal obligation to notify customers within 90 days.
For this reason, the cable industry isn’t opposed to the anti-terrorism legislation.
“We’ve endorsed the idea of reconciling the two different standards,” a National Cable & Telecommunications Assn. spokesman said.
The legal requirement that cablers notify a subscriber when the government comes calling was written in 1994. At that time, lawmakers wanted to keep the billing of cable customers as private as possible, considering some subscribers tuned in to adult programming.
Now, Ashcroft wants stealth-like access to a cable subscriber’s phone bills, emails and Internet logs.
When speaking before the House Judiciary Committee on Monday, Ashcroft said the anti-terrorism act does not strip underlying protections. Rather, it creates more “efficient, technology-neutral intelligence gathering.”
Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) urged Ashcroft to be prudent in asking for new surveillance powers. “We don’t want another J. Edgard Hoover situation,” the politico said.
Ashcroft testified that the FBI and the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service have arrested or detained more than 350 people in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
In plugging the timely nature of the legislation, Ashcroft said the FBI wanted to question nearly 400 more individuals who remained at large and who might have information helpful to the investigation of the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon.
Ashcroft’s bill prompted heated debate in the committee and the vote was delayed until at least next week. The bill also would give authorities additional power in detaining and deporting noncitizens.