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Civil liberties' electronic loopholes.

Federal laws protecting civil liberties have not kept pace with the electronic revolution, according to a new report by the congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA). The issue is no small one, its analysts report. Their survey of 142 federal agencies (excluding foreign intelligence and counerintelligence) identified 35 that use or plan to use electronic surveillance technologies. Thirty-six agencies now use computerized record systems for law enforcement, investigations or intelligence gathering; the 85 computer systems they maintain contain records on 114 million persons. The Justice Department alone uses 15 systems with records on 87 million persons.

Provisions of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act, passed in 1968, provided privacy from telephone taps and concealed microphones, the surveillance technology of the day. It's not clear, however, that technology commercialized since then receives comparable protection, OTA says. for example, it found that contents of digitally transmitted phone conversations, calls made on cellular/cordless phones, data communications between computers and digital transmission of video and graphic images are not clearly protected under existing statutes. Electronic mail, which can be intercepted at several stages, also receives little or no protection, OTA reports. Similarly, it remains unclear whether covert surveillance of computerized records transactions is legal, ITA says.

Ota suggests a number of ways in which Congress could close these potential privacy loopholes in the law. for example, it could legislate changes so that the Omnibus Crime Control Act specifically includes these newer technologies. A more radical option: Congress could take a more active oversight role, such as by requiring that a federal agency get its approval for each database surveillance program.
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Title Annotation:Office of Technology Assessmant reports that federal laws protecting civil liberties have not kept pace with the electronic revolution
Publication:Science News
Date:Nov 23, 1985
Words:269
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