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Carnivore: The Government Wants Your E-Mail

Opinion Editorial
August 16, 2000

By Mike Krause

It is getting hard to find an elected official who doesnt have a plan to protect Internet users from being followed around by the likes of Doubleclick and other online advertisers desperately hoping to send you a banner ad you might actually click on.  But while politicians seek to protect web users from Internet marketers, who is protecting web users from government snooping?

A federal governments protest over the proposed acquisition of a Colorado Internet service provider and an FBI Internet monitoring system shed new light on government unease about exercising control over a technology no political entity could ever hope to contain.

The FBI has opposed the purchase of Englewood-based Internet service provider Verio by Japans Nippon Telephone and Telegraph (of which the Japanese Government is a majority shareholder) on national security grounds.  They have asked for and received a 45-day review of the matter by the secretive Committee on foreign Investment in the U.S.

But rather than a fear that the Japanese government or NTT might use the company to glean business secrets from Verios corporate customers, the FBI seems more concerned about losing their own access to Verios system for wire tapping.

This is right in line with the FBIs new e-mail snooping system, Carnivore.  A combination of hardware and software that connects directly to an ISPsystem. Carnivore allows the FBI to filter all communications on a providers system and target traffic by user name or key word searches without the service provider itself being involved.

The FBI has assured congress that only communications covered by warrants will be kept and any non-relevant material destroyed, but what else are they going to say?  Can you imagine a federal official testifying before congress that well, we think its a neat way to find out whos misbehaving.

These assurances of honorable intent would be more comforting if they werent coming from an agency that happily trotted over hundreds of raw FBI files, many on political adversaries of the Clintons, to the White House.

Is there any reason not to believe that the personal e-mail or web browsing habits of political opponents may find their way to future occupants of the White House (or the State house or Mayors office depending on what other agencies may decide to take a spin down this slippery slope).

Even if you buy this trust us stance, the FBIs promise to play fair with their new toy is also the very reason they shouldnt have it.  If Carnivore is only used within the narrow confines of search warrants, then what is the point of having their own system so obviously capable of misuse when they can readily obtain the information by simply serving said warrant on the ISP itself?

Its not as if the Internet is somehow off limits to police interests; according to USA Today, the number of search warrants served on the nations largest ISP, AOL, increased 800% from 1997 to 1999.  Tapping the Internet is alive and well.

Government agencies do have a legitimate argument for Internet surveillance.  While it is a dynamic tool of communication and information, it is also a medium for con artists, pedophiles, hackers and other criminals.  But why should the standard for government monitoring of Internet communications be any different from a telephone call or a letter?

The FBI does see a difference.  FBI Assistant General Counsel Gregory Motta states It is hard to understand why information in Internet accounts is any more sacrosanct than any other electronic document.  Well, perhaps because the contents of e-mail communications may be of a most private and intimate nature or express politically incorrect ideas and should not be open to arbitrary government monitoring.

At least one Colorado ISP has taken a pre-emptive stance in favor of the idea of privacy.

Colorado based ISP RMI.Net stated in the Wall Street Journal that while they would honor court orders for customer communications, they would refuse a request from the FBI to install Carnivore on their system.  Hopefully others will follow suit.

Ironically, it may be the governments own desire to monitor the Internet that drives it from their grasp. In true unfettered web style, there is already anti-carnivore encryption being offered, aptly called antivore.  Encryption companies are hoping that as more and more web users become less concerned with Doubleclick keeping tabs on them and more concerned about their own government doing it, encryption will go mainstream.

Maybe the FBI shouldnt have given their snooping software a name that conjures up images of a ravenous beast.

Mike Krause is a Research Associate with the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Golden, https://i2i.org.

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