A group of lawyers, law professors and policy analysts testifying before the House Judiciary Comittee said they worry that the vast amount of personal data from Web surfers collected by companies and advertising agencies will wrongly end up in the hands of law enforcement.
In acknowledging that computer files are a rich source of evidence for government investigators, the group asked that Congress bolster privacy laws by applying 25-year-old Fourth Amendment protections to cyberspace.
"People sense with growing unease that everywhere we go on the Internet we leave digital fingerprints which can be tracked by marketers and government agencies alike," James Dempsey, senior staff counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology, wrote in a speech.
An FBI request for additional funds to "data mine" public and private sources of digital information has set off an alarm in the privacy watchdog community. In addition, the Justice Department has proposed changes to electronic surveillance laws that would beef up law enforcement power to investigate crimes like hacker attacks.
Government lawyers and investigators complain that they don't have the resources to adequately combat cybercrime.
But Dempsey and the others who testified today said current surveillance laws are weak, outdated and don't address the sweeping changes on the Net. For example, many of the protections in wiretap law don't apply to email and other online communications, Dempsey said.
"If the right to privacy is to have any meaning, then the mere fact that technology makes access to personal information both possible and easy should not eviscerate the individual's expectation of privacy," testified Nicole Wang, attorney with San Francisco law firm Perkins Coie.
The committee took the comments and suggestion under consideration.