Nobody said solving crime was supposed to be easy.
Sure, the detectives on "NYPD Blue" manage to wrap up most of their cases in an hour or so, with enough time left over to show off their bare butts. In the real world, though, police work is just that work.
So you can't blame law enforcement officials for complaining that encryption might make their jobs even more difficult. If more people started using data-scrambling technology to shield sensitive files and e-mail messages from prying eyes, investigators would have to work harder to gather evidence against computer-aided criminals.
But that doesn't mean the rest of us should sacrifice our personal privacy to make their jobs easier. While most FBI agents are probably very nice people, I still don't want them breaking into my home, tampering with my computer and stealing my passwords without my knowledge.
Far fetched, you say? Not really. In fact, the Justice Department wants to authorize just such a scenario. The Cyberspace Electronic Security Act, a proposed bill made public recently by the Washington Post, would allow judges to give police permission to secretly enter private property, search for passwords and install devices that might override encryption programs.
The Clinton administration has lobbied for years to give law enforcement agents backdoor access to the encryption products used by private citizens. This time, though, the backdoors they want to sneak through are attached to computer users' homes.
You don't have to work for the ACLU to realize this proposal is a tad overzealous. It might have seemed right at home in the former Soviet Union, except for the fact that there weren't any working computers to raid. Even so, I'm sure Joe Stalin would have been pleased by this attempt to place the interests of the state ahead of the civil rights of its citizens.
Police already have the power to secretly install listening devices in private homes, but they rarely do so. The technique was used just 50 times in all of 1998, according to a report from the Administrative Office of the United States Courts. But if the Clinton administration has its way, state-sponsored home invasions will be on the rise as tax collectors, SEC investigators and other officials take advantage of new access to the wealth of evidence stored on computers.
"Microphones have been used only in the toughest cases, against only the most sophisticated criminals where telephone surveillance simply isn't going to work," said David Sobel, general counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a Washington-based public interest group. "With this law, any tax investigation could be elevated to the level of requiring a break-in."
Of course, police wouldn't be breaking into just anyone's home. Under the draft being considered by Clinton administration officials, authorities would need to convince a judge that there was probable cause to believe a crime is being committed, and that access to encrypted data on a particular PC would likely produce evidence of that crime.
It's the same bar that prosecutors must clear to set up a wiretap. But as federal court records can attest, it doesn't take an Olympic-style effort.
Between 1988 and 1998, judges approved 11,000 requests for wiretaps while rejecting only five. Unless you're willing to believe the police are right more than 99.9 percent of the time and that isn't even true on "Cops" this record shouldn't inspire confidence that courts will keep police from invading the homes of innocent people.
The Cyberspace Electronic Security Act faces an uncertain future in Congress, which is debating legislation that would ease export restrictions on encryption software. But the proposal drew an immediate response from Rep. Bob Barr, a Georgia Republican and former federal prosecutor who said it would feed law enforcement's growing "addiction" to electronic surveillance.
"This addiction threatens both civil liberties and the effectiveness of law enforcement," Barr wrote in a letter to the administration. "We risk losing the ability to build cases by traditional and frequently more effective means."
Indeed, police and federal agents have plenty of ways to catch criminals without resorting to the drastic measures envisioned by this new proposal. Encryption might make their jobs more difficult, but recent advances in fingerprint databases, DNA matching and other law enforcement-related technologies more than level the table.
If police can't always read the e-mail messages they intercept or the files they seize, so be it. They should do the best they can to fight high-tech crime without violating the rights of the people they're supposed to be protecting. It might take longer to work this way. But unlike their counterparts on TV, real-life officers of the law don't have to solve every crime in time for a commercial.
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