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The Spybots Among Us 

How the NSA tracks terrorists in the United States through the Internet

Wednesday, Dec 19 2001
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Page 5 of 5

The ability of American intelligence agencies to gather such information was given a huge technical boost in 1994, when Congress passed the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, which required telecommunications carriers to modify their equipment so that law enforcement and intelligence operatives can, in essence, double click on an icon to turn on a telephone or high-speed modem line wiretap.

The Patriot Act enables the NSA, and other intelligence and law enforcement agencies, to minimize the red tape in the system of checks and balances previously set up by Congress to protect U.S. persons from having their communications eavesdropped on and analyzed. It allows the NSA to install wiretaps and to access stored electronic communications, such as voice mail, without obtaining a specific court order for a specific location. It changes federal law to allow the NSA to follow the electronic trail of suspects as they move across the country using multiple telephones and computers. Privacy advocates are concerned that wiretapping without a court order based on a showing of probable cause that the suspect is a terrorist violates the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution. Most important, the Patriot Act broadens the definition of who can be defined as a "terrorist." Some civil liberties groups claim the language is vague enough that it could include U.S. citizens who take part in acts of civil disobedience.

But even before Sept. 11, the government's definition of terrorism was quite broad. Last year, FBI Director Louis J. Freeh testified before the Senate Committee on Appropriations about cyberthreats to national security. Before Sept. 11, the FBI considered domestic terrorism to be the main threat to America. The "domestic terrorist threat comes from right-wing extremist groups, left-wing and Puerto Rican extremist groups, and special interest extremists," Freeh said, "including pro-life, environmental, and anti-nuclear [groups] ... the Animal Liberation Front, the Earth Liberation Front ... and anarchists, operating individually and in groups, [that] caused much of the damage during the 1999 World Trade Organization ministerial meeting in Seattle."

Clearly, the NSA is searching for these perceived enemies by monitoring and hacking certain regions of cyberspace. The agency is being mandated by Congress to strengthen its grip on the Internet. The legislative trend, since Sept. 11 and for the foreseeable future, is to allow the NSA its way in cyberspace.

About The Author

Peter Byrne

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