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Lawsuit filed to block "Internet wiretaps"

Civil liberties groups ask a federal appeals court to block rules that allow the government to monitor the Internet and other communications systems.

Civil liberties groups today asked a federal appeals court to block recently adopted rules that allow the U.S. government to monitor the Internet and other communications systems.

The rules in question, which also provide for tracking the location of cell phones, were adopted by the Federal Communications Commission in August, on the advice of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Aimed at enhancing the government's ability to monitor illicit activities on the worldwide network, they mandate the implementation of technical standards for "Internet wiretaps" by September 30, 2001.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) today filed suit challenging the rules in a petition to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. A separate suit was filed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The potentially thorny issue pits privacy advocates and the Internet's typically libertarian ethos against the government's oft-stated concerns about "cybercrimes," which range from illicit commercial transactions to unlawful tampering with computers and network systems. To date, much of the debate over online privacy has focused on establishing user norms in the commercial sphere.

The 1994 Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) requires the telecommunications industry to design its systems in compliance with FBI technical requirements that facilitate electronic surveillance.

In their suit, the plaintiffs claim that the FCC rules exceed the requirements of CALEA and violate the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits "unreasonable searches and seizures."

According to EPIC general counsel David Sobel, "The FBI is seeking surveillance capabilities that far exceed the powers law enforcement has had in the past and is entitled to under the law."

The FCC could not immediately be reached to comment on the suit.

In enacting the rules last summer, FCC commissioner William Kennard said the agency had "carefully balanced law enforcement's needs against the rights of all Americans to privacy, and the cost to industry of providing these tools to assist law enforcement."