TCS Daily

Carnivore Review Guaranteed to Satisfy No One

By David Mastio - October 16, 2000 12:00 AM

In August, when the controversy over the FBI`s e-mail-snooping program called Carnivore reached a peak, Attorney General Janet Reno was typically forthright and sounded like she understood public privacy concerns: "I don`t know that I can satisfy all the privacy advocates, but I want to try to do everything I can."

Simply put, either Reno has changed her mind or her honest sounding comments were a lie. In fact, Reno and her subordinates have done everything in their power to see that as few of the concerns of privacy advocates about government snooping get addressed as possible.

  • Denying documents: The Electronic Privacy Information Center has requested documents relating to Carnivore under the Freedom of Information Act. First the Department of Justice went to court to delay the release, then under court scrutiny agreed to expedited review, but their definition of expedited is that maybe they`ll be done by sometime next year. And what few documents they have produced so far are heavily redacted so they tell the public almost nothing about Carnivore (You can see some here).

  • Skewed review: When the DOJ released its contract for the independent review, it included a host of opportunities for the government to interfere. Most importantly, the FBI will retain control over what questions the reviewers can ask and what "scenarios" of government snooping the reviewers can analyze. The reviewers will also have to make outrageous assumptions: That the technology is used correctly, is compatible with all of an Internet service provider's systems and that the whole setup is attached to the ISP correctly. Once the hobbled investigation is done, the FBI gets to edit the final report. The result is that a dozen of reputable universities refused to be a party to the farce. (You can read a copy of the contract here.)

  • Biased researchers: The DOJ picked an obscure outfit called the Illinois Institute of Technology Research Institute to do the analysis. They appear to have all the technical qualifications to perform a solid review, but they also come loaded with baggage. IITRI`s computer arm is 80% funded by the federal government. One lawyer on the team worked on the Clinton administration transition and has donated thousands of dollars to the Gore campaign. Another lawyer is a former DOJ employee. The tech folks on the team are larded with connections to the Department of Defense and the National Security Agency.

    Now, none of these things are an indictable offense, and it is clear that law enforcement needs to have technology similar to Carnivore to monitor the Internet communications of criminal suspects. Using the Net should not be a free pass for those planning on breaking the law. But Reno set the standard herself; she wanted to do "everything" she could to try to assure the public their privacy was protected.

    The fact is she has done nothing to assure anyone. At every turn she has chosen to act in a way that guarantees when all the documents are released and the final Carnivore review is made public all the privacy advocates remain concerned.

    To this date no one at the DOJ or the FBI acts like they even care. Assistant Attorney General Stephen Colgate calls concerns about the review team and other aspects of the agency`s handling of Carnivore "patently absurd."

    I want to know what the point of an outside review is if from the beginning it is guaranteed to satisfy no one. The stakes here are obvious. The Internet is still maturing as a business and communications tool. Businesses and the public need to know what the boundaries of their privacy against government snooping are in this new medium as they have been established in snail mail, the telephone and in the living room. They need to have confidence that government interference in the system won`t cause glitches or wholesale violations of their rights.

    This is not an unreasonable demand; in fact, it's the DOJ`s job. They need to start over and do it right.


    David Mastio is an editorial writer for USA TODAY covering politics, technology and business issues.
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