Guidelines open data, Web to FBI

New investigative guidelines issued by Attorney General John Ashcroft May 30 permit the FBI to tap commercial databases, employ data mining and search the Internet for evidence of terrorist activity.

The new guidelines reverse decades-old restrictions imposed to curb FBI excesses of the 1950s and 1960s, when the agency actively spied on Americans involved in the civil rights movement, political dissent and war protests.

"They derive from a period in which Soviet communism was the greatest threat to the United States, in which the Internet did not exist, and in which concerns over terrorist threats to the homeland related mainly to domestic hate groups," Ashcroft said.

In the current war against terrorism, the restrictions provided "a competitive advantage for terrorists," Ashcroft said.

The restrictions date to 1976, when then-Attorney General Edward Levi imposed them, and attorneys general have the authority to amend them unilaterally.

In his announcement of the guideline changes, Ashcroft said, "FBI men and women in the field are frustrated because many of our own internal restrictions have hampered our ability to fight terrorism."

Under the guidelines now abandoned, Ashcroft said, "FBI investigators cannot surf the Web the way you or I can. Nor can they simply walk into a public event or a public place to observe ongoing activities. They have no clear authority to use commercial data services that any business in America can use."

New guidelines expressly permit agents to engage in online research, even when it is not tied to a specific criminal investigation. They also authorize the FBI to use commercial data mining services independent of particular criminal investigations.

The new guidelines also allow the FBI to operate "counterterrorism information systems, and to collect and retain information from all lawful sources, including publicly available sources, for that purpose."

The changes generated concern among privacy and civil liberties organizations. The American Civil Liberties Union warned that the new investigative guidelines "will trash a central protection against government fishing expeditions."

And the Electronic Privacy Information Center said the new rules "significantly broaden government ability to snoop on citizens."

"The FBI has always been able to use the Internet and databases, but only where there some indication of a crime," said Chris Hoofnagle, an EPIC lawyer. The new guidelines "change the dynamic" so that the FBI "can now watch people who are not suspected of doing anything wrong," he said.

According to the Justice Department, the investigative guidelines still "prohibit the FBI from keeping files on citizens on the basis of their constitutionally protected activities," such as exercising the right to free speech.

And the guidelines also "do not, and cannot, authorize the FBI to do anything prohibited by the Constitution or federal law," a department analysis says.

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