President George W. Bush signed legislation this morning that gives law enforcement officials powerful and controversial new powers — including the most far reaching invasion of Internet privacy yet — to combat terrorism. The bill becomes law immediately and a tough talking United States Attorney General John Ashcroft said he will begin implementing it within the hour.
In addition to expanded authority to tap telephones and share heretofore secret grand jury testimony, the legislation also makes it easier for federal authorities to get court approval to track email used by suspected terrorists.
Under the now old law, the FBI and other law enforcement officials seeking to track the email of an individual had to prove to a judge “probable cause” of a crime existed. Under the legislation signed by Bush, authorities now only have to prove to a judge that the probe is “relative” to a criminal investigation.
Once that approval is obtained, authorities are allowed to use tracking technology that monitors all the traffic of an Internet service provider used by the target of the investigation. The Senate passed the bill by a vote of 98 to 1. The House vote was 357 to 66 in favor of the legislation.
The law still requires a wiretap order to actually read the email of individual, but privacy advocates are concerned that the court approved ability to read an email address, subject line and URL is tantamount to actually reading the email itself and circumvents the need for a wiretap order.
The only compromise between the House and Senate versions of the bill imposes a four-year limit on the new legislation.
Shortly before the legislation was passed on Thursday, Ashcroft told a gathering of U.S. mayors in Washington, D.C., that the FBI and Justice Department officials would use the new legislation to seek “every prosecutorial advantage.” He said he would propagate new guidelines to the FBI and Department of Justice officials “immediately” after the legislation is signed by Bush that allows them to begin using the broader authority granted in the bill.