LONDON (Reuters) - Electronic surveillance may eat away your privacy in the digital era, but you'll get used to it. You have no choice.
Top lawyers told an Anglo-American law conference this week that governments had no other way to fight organized crime effectively in a digital age.
``I am convinced that covert surveillance is likely to prove the only effective answer to increasingly sophisticated crime,'' said Lord Justice Murray Stuart-Smith, the former overseer of MI5 and MI6, Britain's security and intelligence agencies.
``Increasingly, the protection of the well-being of the many may require infringement of the rights of the nefarious few.''
Britain is pushing a highly controversial law through parliament forcing companies to install equipment so authorities can intercept and decode any e-mail messages.
No other Western country has such sweeping powers -- though the United States runs Echelon, a spy system of satellites and listening posts which can intercept millions of telephone, fax and e-mail messages.
William Webster, a U.S. judge who used to head the Central Intelligence Agency and Federal Bureau of Investigation, said tough measures might seem alarming today but people would get used to them.
``Privacy must yield in some areas to the rights of others to be protected,'' he told the American Bar Association at a session in London Thursday.
``Unless (law enforcement) is given the tools, they won't succeed in getting there before the bomb goes off.''
He said other laws restricting police behavior also seemed unnecessary in retrospect -- such as one that limited undercover FBI agents to drinking milk on duty while the tough gangs they were trying to infiltrate were on the whisky.
Jeffrey Hunker of the U.S. National Security Council said no one authority could police cyberspace and that states and private-sector companies would all have to work together.
Only a fraction of organizations targeted in cyber-attacks even know they have been infiltrated, surveys show.
The Internet has given international crime gangs an advantage that law enforcers are keen to match, but they are meeting stiff resistance from civil liberties groups.
Criminals can use the Web to launder money across porous borders, hack into official databases and coordinate their activities, or message each other using powerful encryption that thwarts traditional police eavesdropping methods.
Britain's Stuart-Smith said physically following suspects and opening their letters were now ineffective ways to fight crime, and sending agents undercover remained as dangerous as ever.
Hunker said the military thinking of some nations included computer attacks on U.S. banking, the power grid and other vital infrastructure elements -- strikes well within the ability now of well-financed terrorist and organized crime groups as well.
``Recent Internet disruptions show how unprepared we are to deal with even relatively unsophisticated attacks,'' he said.
``Both the private sector and much of the federal government are certainly unprepared to defend against the possibility of a sophisticated nation-state or terrorist attack.''
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