Bill Boosts Phone Taps, Curbs Kiddie Porn

There's something for every-one in the 1997 spending bill

Congress' massive 1997 spending package includes measures and laws that will funnel millions of dollars to the telecom industry, curb the distribution of digital child pornography and require states to collect more information about immigrants and citizens.


"Most of these are feel-good measures that, while highly invasive of privacy, won't solve the problems" they are intended to solve, said David Banisar, an attorney with the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center.

For the telecom industry, the dollars come with a price tag because they are intended to pay for the modification of sophisticated computerized phone switches to permit court-ordered wiretaps. The Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act allowing the modifications was passed in late 1994 during the final hours of the 103rd Congress, much to the dismay of groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union.

Congress allocated $60 million in 1997 for the program and created a Carrier Compliance Fund through which law enforcement and intelligence agencies could funnel more money for switch modifications.

"We've never opposed funding... because we are the recipients of such funding," said one industry official. However, "there's no commercial value to it" because the money flows through the telephone companies to the companies that produce and modify the electronic switching gear, he said.

Expenditure must wait for the Justice Department to send Congress a plan for the fund, he said. Without the plan, the phone companies can't modify their networks to help the FBI, he said.

The money will also persuade the Cellular Telephone Industry Association to reverse its opposition to the FBI's plans for tracking the location of mobile phones, said Banisar. "I would assume they will sell out," he said.

Last month, a CTIA panel rejected the FBI plans.

"The difficulty has nothing to do with money," said Ron Nessen, chief spokesman for the CTIA. The FBI wants to track the location of cellular phones, such as those used by drug smugglers, but the 1994 law does not require companies to install the tracking equipment in phones, he said. Installing it without a congressional requirement would expose phone companies to expensive lawsuits, he said.

"If your client was found by the FBI and was caught by this tracking technology, and it is not in the [1994] law, you'd damned well sue" the phone companies, he said.

The spending measure also included an amendment to curb electronic child pornography. Sponsored by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, chairman of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, the amendment criminalizes creation and distribution of pornographic images featuring people who look younger than 18 years old.

However, the measure will likely be challenged in court as an unwarranted restriction on freedom of speech, said Banisar. Child pornography is already illegal and can be enforced without adding restrictions to the Internet, he said. Although court challenges to curb electronic child porn may not be popular, a lawsuit is needed "because the constitution is being grievously... skewered," he said.

Another measure passed by Congress requires states to add Social Security numbers to driver's licenses, as part of the campaign to curb illegal immigration. The measure trumps policies of officials in 37 states, which had rejected plans to add the number to driving licenses because of fears about citizens' privacy and vulnerability to credit card fraud, said Banisar.


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