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Posted 31 May 2002 09:13:40 UTC

The FBI announced Wednesday that it will be reorganizing itself, moving agents away from the "War on Drugs" to focus more strongly on "counterterrorism, counterintelligence, and cyber security."

While it's difficult to wade through the buzzwords and predict what the impact of this reorganization will be, it seems clear that this is going to be bad news for hackers. Indeed, Fox News described the reorganization as a set of "top new marching orders [that] will focus on terrorists, spies and hackers, in that order." And all this despite the fact that the government's own statistics show only a handful of actual "cybercrimes" committed each year. (FY 2000 is the latest report available on the website.)

Following up on this, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced on Thursday that some restrictions previously placed on the FBI would be lifted. These restrictions, now dropped, prevented the FBI from spying on domestic political groups. These guidelines were developed in the 1970's after public uproar over an FBI project called Cointelpro, which infiltrated groups such as anti-war protestors, the civil rights movement, the Black Panther Party, and the Ku Klux Klan.

It is not clear exactly how investigating political groups which are not suspected of criminal activity enhances the FBI's ability to do its job. It is, however, likely that these investigations will create a chilling effect upon free speech in our society, as citizens may become afraid to join groups which the FBI targets. And, as the Center for Democracy and Technology points out, this relaxation of guidelines would have had absolutely no effect on the FBI's investigation of Osama bin Laden or al-Quaeda, as these groups are investigated under separate guidelines which apply to international entities, rather than the domestic guidelines which were recently revised.

It seems then that rather than focusing on actual criminals, the FBI is moving to investigate "cybercriminals" and political activists. Rather than focusing on coordinating and making sense of the huge amounts of information they already collect, the FBI is moving to collect even more information, which will be even more difficult for them to process. The situation looks dangerous.

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