December 13, 2006 1:39 PM PST

Senator: Expect data privacy and patent law rewrite

Slapping additional regulations on government and commercial "databanks" and rewriting patent laws are on the agenda for a key U.S. Senate committee in 2007, its new chairman said Wednesday.

The announcement came in a morning speech by Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy at Georgetown University Law Center. After the Democrats regained control of the Senate, Leahy was selected to oversee the Senate Judiciary Committee, which writes laws on topics from criminal justice and wiretapping to intellectual property.

In a speech titled "Ensuring Liberty and Security through Checks and Balances," many of Leahy's remarks assailed what he deemed an "impulse to unilateralism" by the Bush administration.

"It has acted outside lawful authority to wiretap Americans without warrants, and to create databanks and dossiers on law-abiding Americans without following the law and without first seeking legal authorization," Leahy said in prepared remarks.

The longtime senator said he recognized the importance of spying on suspected terrorists to thwart disasters like the September 11 attacks. But he vowed to step up oversight of a National Security Agency surveillance program that critics claim has swept up the phone and Internet activities of countless innocent Americans.

The committee also plans to keep a close watch on government "databanks," such as terrorist watch lists and other screening tools, to ensure they have proper privacy safeguards and allow for speedy correction of mistakes, he added.

Also potentially troubling is "the proliferation of data brokers and the burgeoning market for collecting and selling personal information," Leahy said.

Members of Congress introduced a number of bills last year after news of several high-profile data breaches at companies like LexisNexis, ChoicePoint and Bank of America. But none of those measures became law before politicians went home last weekend.

Leahy said he would push again for legislation that "establishes stronger penalties to deter identity theft and requires companies to notify individuals when their information has been compromised."

Leahy said he also planned to tackle the hot-button issue of patent reform. He and outgoing intellectual property panel chairman Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, co-authored a bill in August that proposed sweeping changes to the system, including measures aimed at keeping patent disputes out of court and litigation costs down.

High-tech companies, some of which have voiced support for the Leahy-Hatch proposal, have levied a hefty list of gripes about the current system in recent years. They say its setup has encouraged a proliferation of bad patents, disproportionately exorbitant settlements in infringement suits, and so-called "patent trolls," who sit on patents in hopes of seeking a lucrative licensing deal from alleged infringers.

"Reforming our patent system will also be an enormous, but critically important, project in the new Congress," said Leahy, who served as the highest-ranking Democrat on an intellectual property panel in the last session and could be in line for its chairmanship next year.

Congress is scheduled to reconvene on January 4.

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