Feels Like the First Time?

Everything's new on the Internet


It was déjà vu all over again for The New York Times. On March 30, the paper ran Associated Press wire copy that reported the arrest of an Argentine student for hacking into U.S . military computers. The arrest, the story said, was the fruit of the "first court-ordered wiretap on a computer network."

Exactly three months earlier, on December 30, 1995, a staff-written New York Times report on the arrest of a German engineer for selling cellular phones programmed with stolen numbers was also billed as having "involved the first court-approved wiretap of the Internet."

When dealing with a relative novelty like the Internet, everything old becomes new again. During the late-'80s wave of prosecutions of such hacker gangs as the Masters of Deception, the cops used court-authorized wiretaps of computer communications. A Justice Department spokesman presents a fine distinction: In those cases "it wasn't of the computer packet switch network, but the circuit switch network. In other words, the wire tapping [was] at the phone company, but not at an Internet service provider." And of course, as an FBI official said in relation to the German engineer's arrest, law enforcement agencies often monitor Internet communications without court orders, but with the permission of the service provider.

Federal authority to do the wiretaps springs from 1986's Electronic Communications Privacy Act, so none of these cases represent an unprecedented expansion of law enforcement's ability to snoop in cyberspace. But the Internet seems to breed this sort of breathless novelty-oriented reporting. Says Mike Godwin, a lawyer who works with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, "I'm sure we have not seen the last first Internet wiretap."