E-Mail – The Other Red Meat
By Can the public trust the government to limit its use of the system of capturing spies, hackers and terrorists while protecting the privacy of law-abiding Americans?
The FBI has a new toy as its called Carnivore — a computer system so nicknamed because it rapidly finds the meat in vast amounts of data — raises issues about what constitutes a reasonable search and seizure of electronic information.
Carnivore is a specialized network analyzer of sniffer which runs as an application program on a normal personal computer. It works by sniffing the network packets and copying and storing only those packets which match a defined filter set programmed in conformity with a court order.
The FBI says Carnivore does not search through the contents of every message and collect those that contain certain key words like bomb or drugs. But according to Vint Cerf, a senior vice president at WorldCom and a man considered by many to be one of the principal architects of the Internet, says the program can gather more information than is called for under a court order.
Also, the FBI cannot install this program without help and agreement from the ISP (Internet Service Provider). The FBI states that without the ISPs technical personnel, implementing the Carnivore program would be very difficult, and in some instances impossible.
Because of all the concerns the Carnivore programs brings up with privacy and legal issues the US Attorney General Janet Reno called for an independent study of the Carnivore system. The Justice Department has agreed to allow a select group of universities to review Carnivore and report back to the DOJ, but several of the universities have refused to submit applications to staff the review panel due to the heavy restrictions imposed by the DOJ. When asked why so many universities objected to the DOJs narrow guideline for the review panel, Donald M. Kerr, assistant director for the FBI, said those same restrictions prohibited him from elaborating on the selection process.
James X. Dempsey, senior staff counsel for the Center for Democracy and Technology, stated Unfortunately, the independent review promised by the Justice Department as this point is so circumscribed and under such control of the FBI and the DOJ that it holds little promise of giving Congress, industry or the public reliable answers.
The House Judiciary Committee, meanwhile, took up consideration of three consumer privacy bills, two of which were drafted specifically to address the use of systems like Carnivore.
H.R. 4987, sponsored by Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., updates wiretapping laws to reduce the governments ability to listen in on wireless, e-mail and Internet communications.
H.R. 518, sponsored by Rep. Charles Canady, R-Fla., seek to accomplish much the same thing as H.R. 4987, but also would count electronic communication as being inadmissible in court if it were obtained illegally, and would require the government to submit annual reports on their requests to tap stored electronic communications.
House Majority Leader Richard Armey, R-Texas, has criticized US Attorney General Janet Reno for refusing to pull the plug on Carnivore while the review panel conducts its investigation.
The Justice Department has not responded to our request. They have refused to suspend the use of Carnivore while the program is in question, Armey said. Instead, Attorney General Reno has proposed to handpick a single university to review the system – a plan that is woefully inadequate.
The Justice Department is scheduled to have selected the university to staff its Carnivore review panel by Sept. 26 and to issue a report by Dec. 8.
For more information on the Carnivore program, go to the FBI Web site at www.fbi.gov/programs/carnivore/carnivore.htm
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