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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. May Become Internet Police

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Justice Department, using a recently approved anti-terrorism law, can now prosecute foreign hackers when they attack computers in their own or other countries outside the United States.

Critics said last week that the change could make the United States the world's Internet policeman and set a precedent that would apply American values to the worldwide network.

Prosecutions can occur if any part of a crime takes place within U.S. borders. A large part of the Internet's communications traffic goes through the United States, even in messages that travel from one foreign country to another.

The new prosecutorial powers, which have no parallel in other nations, troubled one former Justice Department computer crimes prosecutor.

"It's a massive expansion of U.S. sovereignty," said Mark Rasch, now with a computer security firm, Predictive Systems.

The change was highlighted last month by the Justice Department in its field guidance to federal prosecutors.

"Individuals in foreign countries frequently route communications through the United States, even as they hack from one foreign country to another," the recommendations said. "The amendment creates the option, where appropriate, of prosecuting such criminals in the United States."

The FBI referred questions to the Justice Department. A Justice Department spokeswoman did not return calls for comment.

Much of the Internet's message traffic travels through the United States, dependent on U.S. hubs in Virginia and California.

Jessica Marantz of the Internet statistics firm Telegeography said more than 80 percent of Internet access points in Asia, Africa and South America are connected through U.S. cities.

The Justice Department pushed for the legislation as a way to fight terrorism.

But the change in law creates a precedent that could be used to prosecute any computer crime, Rasch said, from basic data theft to sending pornographic pictures. Current law already allows pornography prosecutions in any jurisdiction the pictures pass through, but this has not yet been applied on an international scale to Internet transmissions.

For example, an owner of a pornography web site in Sweden might be prosecuted for sending a racy picture to a friend in Norway if the message happened to travel through a computer in Fairfax, Virginia.

"We haven't done that yet because it's an affront to the way the Internet works," Rasch said. "But now [with the anti-terror law] we're criminalizing anything that happens over the Internet because traffic passes through the United States."