The Bush administration is pushing to ratify an international convention that civil libertarians say would pose serious threats to privacy rights at home and abroad.
After delaying for about two years, U.S. President George W. Bush recently asked the U.S. Senate to ratify the Council of Europe Cybercrime Convention, a global agreement apparently created to help police worldwide cooperate to fight Internet crimes.
“It’s the only international treaty to address the problems of computer-related crime and electronic evidence gathering,” Bush said in his November letter asking the Senate to confirm U.S. adherence to the treaty.
“It promises to be an effective tool in the global effort to combat computer-related crime,” added the president.
But independent legal experts and right activists on both sides of the Atlantic are sceptical about such claims.
“This is a bad treaty that not only threatens core liberties, but will obligate the United States to use extraordinary powers to do the dirty work of other nations,” says Barry Steinhardt of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the oldest civil rights group in the country.
“We are opposed to this treaty,” says Cedric Laurent, a senior policy fellow at the Electronic Privacy Information Centre (EPIC), a public interest research group based in Washington, DC that specialises in issues of democracy and technology.
The treaty criminalizes acts such as hacking and the production, sale or distribution of hacking tools, and expands criminal liability for intellectual property violations that nations must have on their books as crimes.
So far, only four countries Albania, Estonia, Hungary and Croatia have ratified the treaty since it opened for signatures in 2001.
Thirty-two countries besides the United States have signed the convention; it must be ratified by five nations before it enters into force.
The agreement also makes it mandatory for each participating nation to grant new powers of search and seizure to its law enforcement authorities, including the power to force an Internet service provider (ISP) to preserve a customer’s usage records and to monitor his or her online activities as they occur.
If approved by the Senate, experts say, U.S. police would be required to cooperate in “mutual assistance requests” from police in other nations “to the widest extent possible.”
“The Cyber-crime signatories include nations of recent and untested democratic vintage, such as Ukraine and Bulgaria,” says ACLU Legislative Counsel Marv Johnson.
“Do we really want professional American law enforcement personnel conducting surveillance on people who haven’t broken any U.S. law in order to help enforce the ‘law’ of some Party apparatchik in China?” he added in a statement.
Right groups are also worried about the possible use of new surveillance devices like Carnivore, the “Internet-tapping” system used by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to intercept communications.
Unlike wiretaps, which are set up by a telephone company on behalf of authorities, Carnivore allows law enforcement agents direct access to entire ISP networks, far beyond the scope of powers those agents now have.
When the U.S. Congress passed the infamous Patriot Act to boost law-enforcement in response to the Sep. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, it authorised the use of Carnivore for collecting information on Internet addresses and traffic. But it stopped short of permitting the system to be used to eavesdrop on actual content.
“The Patriot Act has given more powers to the law enforcement agencies. That is right,” says Laurent in an interview. “But the ratification of this convention would give even more powers to the authorities.”
“Unfortunately, the history of the FBI and other government agencies on respecting privacy is not good,” says Steinhardt in an interview, explaining that is why, “Carnivore has been opposed by organisations from across the political spectrum”.
The ACLU and other critics of the treaty also argue that it provides too little protection for political activities. They point out that the text fails to define “political offences,” a fault they call “a huge omission,” since an act considered political in the United States might be a criminal matter in another country.
For example, the treaty section on real-time monitoring of Internet activity does not include an exemption to the mutual assistance requirement for “political” offences, meaning, the experts say, the FBI could be asked to order an ISP like AOL to spy on a political dissenter in Ukraine or a union organiser in Latin America.
Steinhardt wonders why Bush decided to request ratification now. “We are trying to understand why the U.S. government did not do anything two years ago,” he says. “They had abandoned this (treaty). I think it’s all related to 9/11. But it’s a mystery to us.”
In his letter to the Senate, Bush wrote, “the treaty would help deny ‘safe havens’ to criminals, including terrorists, who can cause damage to U.S. interests abroad using computer systems.”(Inter Press Service)