with permission from NewsMax.com
7-12-00

The Feds Can Read Your E-Mail

First it was Echelon the global eavesdropping system Uncle Sam and John Bull have been using to spy on satellite-transmitted phone calls, e-mails and fax messages. Now it's Carnivore, the FBI's newest electronic snooping device that can read your e-mail right off your mail server.

Capable of scanning millions of e-mails a second, Carnivore can easily be used to monitor everybody's e-mail messages and transactions, including banking and Internet commerce. If they want to, the feds can find out what books you're buying online, what kind of banking transactions you conduct - in short, everything you do when you go online and send e-mail, whether private or commercial.

The FBI has been quietly monitoring e-mail for about a year. Two weeks ago the feds went public and explained the high-tech snooping operation to what the Wall Street Journal called "a roomful of astonished industry specialists."

According to the bureau, they've used Carnivore - so called because it can digest the "meat" of the information they're looking for - in less than 100 cases, in most cases to locate hackers but also to track terrorist and narcotics activities.

But there is nothing to stop Carnivore from making a meal of your e-mail messages and transactions if they decide that's what they want to do and can get a judge to issue a court order allowing them to tap your e-mail as they would your phones.

That's scant comfort considering the underhanded means the feds employed to get court orders to raid the Branch Davidian compound, or to win a judge's permission to stage what amounted to an illegal armed raid on Elian Gonzalez's Miami home.

Carnivore is nothing but a store-bought personal computer with special software that the FBI installs in the offices of Internet service providers (ISPs).

The computer is kept in a locked cage for about a month and a half. Every day an agent comes by and retrieves the previous day's e-mail sent to or by someone suspected of a crime.

But critics say that Carnivore, like some ravening beast, is simply too hungry to be trusted - that it gives the feds far too much access to too much private information.

"This is more of a vacuum cleaner-type approach - it apparently rifles through everything," David Sobel, general counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, told Fox News.

"It's potentially much more invasive than telephone surveillance."

Carnivore could conceivably monitor all the e-mail that moves through an ISP - not merely messages sent to or from the subject allegedly being monitored. Critics compare it to eavesdropping on all the phones in a neighborhood simply to zero in on just one phone.

Disturbingly, the FBI has prevailed in challenges against forcing ISPs to allow Carnivore to be installed in their offices. According to the Wall Street Journal, one unidentified ISP put up a legal fight against Carnivore early this year and lost.

The FBI defends Carnivore, insisting it is used selectively and monitors only the e-mail of the subject. They say that messages belonging to those not being probed, even if criminal, would not be admissible in court.

"The volume of e-mail in a location is generally fairly small and being managed by a small number of e-mail servers on a fairly low-speed network," said Marcus Thomas, chief of the FBI's cyber technology section.

"The system is not unlike 'sniffers' used within the networks every day."

That fails to satisfy critics such as Sobel. He says Carnivore is similar to Russia's surveillance system, called "SORM," which all Russian ISPs are forced to install to allow the government to spy on whomever it chooses.

ItĂ­s also similar, he says, to the notorious Echelon the National Security Agency's global eavesdropping system, which intercepts telecommunications transmissions from around the world and looks for keywords that could indicate illegal activity.

"Carnivore is really the latest indication of a very aggressive stance that the bureau is taking in collecting as much information as technically possible," Sobel said.

FBI spokesman Paul Bresson insists that law-abiding citizens have nothing to fear from Carnivore. "Anytime we develop a system, we're basically balancing the interests of national security against that of the privacy of the public," he said.

"This issue's always going to come up. We're always going to get questions. We understand that."