Citing Strictures, Universities Decline to Review FBI's 'Carnivore' System

September 6, 2000 12:00 am

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ATLANTA — Academic institutions will likely pass up the chance to audit the federal government’s Internet monitoring system, citing strict controls that would prevent an independent review, researchers said Wednesday, according to news.

Known as “Carnivore,” the FBI’s e-mail monitoring system has drawn fire from civil liberties and electronic freedom activists who see it as an excessive intrusion on individual privacy.

The Justice Department approached teams of researchers at major universities to make sure that the controversial eavesdropping technology does not violate civil rights.

But a daunting list of requirements and restrictions for the review seems to have prompted numerous university research teams to forego the opportunity to take a peek at the secretive Carnivore code.

“Basically (the federal government) can edit the report, omit sections of the report and decide never to release it,” said Jeffrey Schiller, a computer security expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who was contacted to participate in the review.

The contract would allow the government to veto researchers from the review and possibly pursue criminal charges against researchers who disclose sensitive information.

Tom Perrine, a computer specialist affiliated with the University of California, San Diego, said such stipulations discourage academics from taking part.

Like MIT and UCSD, researchers at Dartmouth College, the University of Michigan and Purdue University rebuffed informal or formal requests from the Justice Department, given the tight controls, Perrine said.

“They came to the exact conclusion that we did, that this would not constitute an independent review,” Perrine said.

Nevertheless, the assistant attorney general said he did not expect a complete no-show from potential bidders.

“We have received multiple queries from universities so I would be shocked if that were the case,” Stephen Colgate said Wednesday, just hours before a 5 p.m. EDT deadline to submit proposals. Colgate said he would not know who the bidders were until Thursday morning.

“We are not surprised that respected universities are saying ‘no thanks’ to the government’s bogus offer to review Carnivore,” said Barry Steinhardt, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union. “The ACLU has said all along that this would not be a truly independent review as long as the Justice Department has final say on what goes in the report.”

The ACLU, along with the Electronic Privacy Information Center, has filed Freedom of Information lawsuits to obtain records of the system, including its computer source code, but to little avail.

Carnivore would work as a “black box” attached to the core of ISP networks. Based on a court order, the FBI would use it to monitor and retrieve e-mail messages of criminal suspects.

The FBI and the Justice Department maintain that strict oversight by federal courts would prevent abuses of the system. The pledge has failed to assure electronic privacy activists that only legitimate uses would take place.

In testimony before Congress last July, the ACLU’s Steinhardt said, “It is hard to imagine how the operation of Carnivore can be squared with either the Fourth Amendment or [the Electronic Communications Privacy Act] which was adopted to implement the Fourth Amendment in the context of electronic surveillance.”

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