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US law to protect cyberspace against terrorism

Please note the Law may have changed since the publication of article.

On 12th October 2001, the US Senate passed a law, which gives US law enforcement authorities broader powers to monitor Internet use and emails and to conduct wiretaps.

The FBI’s “Carnivore” computer system already searches ISPs records to find specific e-mails and track all visitors to a particular websites, but these new measures are more far reaching and will allow surveillance without the authorities having to prove to a judge any link with the “probable cause” of a crime such where activities could be construed as “federal terrorism offences.”

In the UK, the Terrorism Act 2000 already makes it a terrorist offence to use or threaten action designed, amongst other things, to seriously interfere with or seriously disrupt an electronic system. Simon Halberstam, a partner in City solicitors Sprecher Grier Halberstam said “Because the UK already has considerable anti-terrorist measures in place it seems unlikely that we will be changing the law imminently. The fact that other governments are already taking steps to ensure national laws address cyber-terrorism means that they recognise the seriousness of the threat.” She added “we all need to be aware that viruses and hacking pose serious threats to our everyday lives given the reliance we place on computers. These activities are not just the province of geeks looking for a quick thrill.”

Since the attack on America, ISPs in Britain have been asked to preserve data records from 11September and the days leading up to the attacks and the English authorities are seeking logs of emails sent and received. They have not requested the actual text yet, The Data Protection Act would ordinarily prevent ISPs from retaining this sort of data but the national security exceptions have been invoked to permit retention. Ordinarily such apparent violations of privacy would lead to vociferous outbursts by civil liberties organisations, but this is not something that many such organisations seem to have picked up on yet. The problem with these records is they may identify the computer the email was sent from but won’t necessarily enable the location of the computer or the sender to be established.

Simon Halberstam added that “a further problem with any such legislation which relates to information gathering is that it is only as good as the humans who interpret the information. This could mean that activities which appear to relate to a terrorist attack, such as hacking into a military intranet or large telecommunications system could turn out to be a low-tech juvenile hack or conversely apparent pranks could be connected with a terrorist attack.” Only time will tell whether the legislation the US proposes and national governments have enacted turns out to be effective in the war on cyber-terrorism.

© This article is copyright Simon Halberstam 2008 and should not be construed as legal advice or opinion in any specific facts or circumstances. the contents are intended for generic information purposes only. You are urged to contact a suitably qualified lawyer for specific advice.