WASHINGTON (AP) - The explosion in communications technology has so outpaced privacy laws that Americans have little or no protection against a plethora of new ways for government or private adversaries to pry into their lives, a congressional agency reported today. The non-partisan Office of Technology Assessment found that 35 out of 142 domestic federal agencies use or plan to use various electronic surveillance methods, including modern devices not governed by a landmark 1968 law that circumscribed the use of wiretaps and bugs - concealed microphones.
The agency said 36 agencies, not counting those in foreign intelligence, already use a total of 85 computerized record systems for investigative or intelligence purposes, and maintain 288 million files on 114 million people. The report raised the "technically feasible" specter of these being linked into a single data base network that could track untold numbers of citizens without due cause.
The report, requested by House and Senate committees, noted that many new and uncontrolled methods of surveillance are made possible by the very technologies of which more and more Americans are availing themselves - electronic mail, computer conferencing, cellular and cordless telephones, beepers and electronic pagers. Intercepting such devices is easy, and "the law has not kept pace," the agency said.
But other devices, such as miniature television cameras and pen registers - which monitor the numbers called on a given telephone line - have enabled new ways to spy on people even if their own communications habits are more old-fashioned, the agency noted.
Rep. Robert W. Kastenmeier, D-Wis., chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee on courts and civil liberties, said the study "shows how the law in this area has broken down; it is up to Congress to fix it. If we fail to act, the personal and business communications of Americans will not have the privacy protection they deserve."
Sen. Charles McC. Mathias, R-Md., said the report "documents how new and more intrusive forms of snooping have followed in the wake of the exciting advances in communications technology," and agreed Congress must "bring federal privacy laws up to date.'
Rep. Don Edwards, D-Calif., chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee on civil and constitutional rights, said, "While the attorney general of the United States is claiming that the civil liberties granted by the Constitution should be limited to the 'original intentions' of the framers, the technological possibilities for government surveillance have exploded. The framers knew nothing of closed-circuit television, wiretapping and computer data banks."
The report noted that the Fourth Amendment, which protects "the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures," was written "at a time when people conducted their affairs in a simple direct, and personalized fashion." Neither, said the report, has Title III of the Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, which was designed to protect the privacy of wire and oral communications, kept pace. "
At the time Congress passed this act," the report said, "electronic surveillance was limited primarily to simple telephone taps and concealed microphones. Since then, the basic communications infrastructure in the United States has been in rapid technological change."
The congressional agency said it could not estimate the extent of electronic surveillance in the private sector, saying only "it is probable that many forms ... go undetected, and if detected, go unreported."
But in its survey of the federal bureaucracy, OTA found 35 agencies, mostly in the Justice, Treasury and Defense departments, used or planned to use:
As for the 85 computerized record systems that could be used for surveillance purposes, none of the operators provided statistics requested by the OTA on record completeness and accuracy. Under the 1968 law, wiretaps and bugs are prohibited without a court order based on the affirmation of a high-ranking prosecutor that a crime has occurred, that the target of the surveillance is involved, and that other means of investigation would be ineffective.
According to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, federal and state judges approved 801 out of 802 requests last year for electronic surveillance, primarily wiretaps and hidden microphones, at an average cost of $45,000.
The agency said that while there is some promise in emerging techniques for low-cost data encryption or other means to protect communication systems from eavesdropping, "there is no immediate technological answer ... against electronic surveillance." Foreign intelligence cases are governed by a separate law, so the CIA, National Security Agency and Defense Intelligence Agency were not included in the survey.
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