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Thursday, 4 October, 2001, 12:15 GMT 13:15 UK
Anti-terror hi-tech plans edge closer
New York skyline AP
Measures proposed after 11 September attacks
By BBC News Online's Alfred Hermida

A law giving greater powers to US police to track the phone and internet activities of suspected terrorists has moved a step closer after a powerful Congressional committee unanimously approved a compromise version of the bill.

Congress can and must improve safety while preserving liberty

Laura Murphy, American Civil Liberties Union
But the revised anti-terrorism legislation omits a controversial clause that would have made computer hacking a federal offence, punishable by life imprisonment.

The Provide Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (Patriot) bill was introduced in by the House Judiciary Committee as an alternative to the Anti-Terrorism Act proposed by the Bush administration.

The US Senate is also working its own version of the anti-terrorism package and has reached agreement with the administration on it.

The twin actions mean the full House and Senate are likely to vote on their versions of the legislation as early as next week, and then move to try to hammer out differences and send a final measure to President Bush to sign into law.

Hacking u-turn

One of the more controversial measures effectively labelled all hacking activities, even low-level computer crime, as a terrorist act.

The new Patriot bill hones the list of computer crimes.

To qualify as terrorism, any computer crime would now have to be "calculated to influence or affect the conduct of government by intimidation or coercion".

Terrorists have weapons that law enforcement cannot protect against right now

James Sensenbrenner, Judiciary Committee chairman
But civil liberties groups are still concerned that both proposals still give the government more leeway to conduct electronic surveillance and access internet records.

The American Civil Liberties Union and Center for Democracy and Technology says the legislation still erodes key constitutional freedoms.

It is concerned that the measures are been rushed through without proper consideration of the impact on civil liberties and could be abused in the future.

"Congress can and must improve safety while preserving liberty," said Laura Murphy of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Expanded powers

President Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft have been pressing Congress to quickly enact the anti-terrorism proposals put forward after the devastating 11 September attacks on New York and Washington.

They want to give the police expanded power to wiretap the telephones of suspected terrorists, keep tabs on their e-mail, share intelligence information about them and track their internet activity.

"Terrorists have weapons that law enforcement cannot protect against right now," said Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner.

"Technology has made extraordinary advances, but these advances in the wrong hands make us more vulnerable to attacks."

See also:

12 Sep 01 | Sci/Tech
US computer networks at risk
20 Sep 01 | Americas
US plans wide-ranging response
25 Sep 01 | Sci/Tech
Virus exploits terror attacks
21 Sep 01 | Sci/Tech
Tackling terror with technology
28 Sep 01 | Sci/Tech
Hackers 'branded as terrorists'
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