Critics Knock Proposal For Surveillance Standards

Privacy advocates said they're disappointed with a White House proposal designed to strengthen the laws governing Internet surveillance by law enforcement authorities.

The proposed legislation failed to temper alarm last week over the FBI's Carnivore surveillance system, which critics say can monitor an Internet service provider's network traffic.

"They addressed everything but Carnivore, and in my mind, it really was a camouflage to cover the mess that is Carnivore," said Barry Steinhardt, associate director of the New York-based American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). "The problem with Carnivore is that it is a black box with all of the service's private traffic flowing through it, and the FBI has unlimited power. Tweaking some of the standards isn't going to solve the problem."

The ACLU and the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington filed a Freedom of Information request last week for all records, source code and object code related to Carnivore. The groups called on Congress to update federal privacy law to ban the system. A House subcommittee will hold hearings on Carnivore this week.

The legislative proposal, presented by White House Chief of Staff John Podesta, is intended to unify inconsistent laws governing the surveillance of telephone, cable and the Internet. It applies the stricter standards of telephone wiretaps and requires investigators to show probable cause to obtain a court order for scanning the content of a suspect's e-mail.

Not a Response to Carnivore Flap

Linda Ricci, a spokeswoman for the Office of Management and Budget, said the legislative proposal has been months in the making and isn't a response to the Carnivore controversy. But she said it should ease concerns about misuse of the system. "[Carnivore] would only apply to a list of serious crimes. It must be approved by a high-level Justice Department official, and the information gathered in the interception would be suppressed in court if the rules weren't followed," she said.

EarthLink Inc., an Atlanta-based Internet service provider with 3.5 million subscribers, said last week that it had reached an agreement with the FBI that permitted EarthLink to deliver information requested in a court order as an alternative to the FBI installing Carnivore on the EarthLink network. The company resisted the deployment of Carnivore and an order preventing notification to customers but was initially overruled by a federal magistrate.

"We didn't feel comfortable having something on our network that we didn't have control over," said Kurt Rahn, EarthLink's senior public relations manger. "If we have to do it, we would rather have control over this sort of thing. Our members know their privacy is safe, and the FBI gets what it needs to do their job."

Copyright © 2000 IDG Communications, Inc.

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