FBI Net Spying Draws Fire

A Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Web-based surveillance program, which the agency says is designed specifically to be used in criminal investigations, is drawing withering fire from critics who say it is compromising the privacy of law-abiding Internet users.

The program, a combination of hardware and software called “Carnivore,” first came to light when a lawyer representing an Internet Service Provider (ISP) expressed concern during an April Congressional hearing that the program could be used to track dissidents and journalists online.

The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that after the FBI demonstrated the program to telecommunications industry experts two weeks ago, concern over the program became widespread.

“We have some deep concerns as we look at this harder,” Jeff Richards of Internet Alliance, a trade association that includes some of the largest ISPs in the U.S., said in published reports.

Internet Alliance aims to develop policies that encourage consumer confidence and trust in online and Internet services worldwide.

Carnivore Seeks ‘Meat’

The program is a fast scanning system that can weed important information out of large amounts of data, finding the so-called “meat.” It can be used on a typical desktop computer, but must be hooked up to an ISP network. Once connected, it has the capability to track all communication on the network.

Although there is existing legislation that requires telephone companies to make their complicated networks easy to wiretap, critics say those laws were made with traditional wiretapping procedures in mind. In a traditional wiretap, the tap is physically placed and maintained by the telephone company. With the Carnivore system, law enforcement plugs the system into the ISP, and then controls the tap.

“[Carnivore] goes to the heart of how the Fourth Amendment and the federal wiretap statute are going to be applied in the Internet age,” said Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC).

Carnivore Requests Increasing

The FBI insists it will use the system only with valid court orders, but some ISPs are resisting being forced to install it. Experts agree that Carnivore is more discriminating than a full wiretap — it can interpret information “packets” in order to weed out e-mail from other data being sent over the Internet, for example — but there are fears it could be misused.

The FBI said the program has been used in fewer than 50 cases, but expects the number of requests to increase.

Balancing Privacy, Prosecution

The FBI-Carnivore story comes to light at an emotional time when Internet privacy issues have become paramount in the minds of both consumers and the industry. Polls show the majority of Internet users are concerned about how their private information will be collected and used.

According to reports, Barry Steinhardt of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said that law enforcement officials should be prohibited from installing any device that allows them to intercept communications between persons other than the target of the investigation.

In related news, the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) is the subject of a pending lawsuit against the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) over that agency’s regulations allowing law enforcement officials to tap Internet transmissions at the ISP level — without a warrant establishing probable cause that a crime is being committed. A ruling on the issue from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia is expected this month.

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