New FBI surveillance system prompts concern for privacy

by Melinda Rogers

For most University students e-mail is a fast and easy way to communicate with friends and family in a private one-on-one manner. But students’ e-mail privacy might be limited with the emergence of a FBI surveillance system.
Carnivore, an electronic surveillance system used by the FBI, gathers electronic mail sent to and from criminal suspects.
Despite a list of criteria that must be met before enacting electronic surveillance, many people worry that besides intercepting messages from criminal suspects, the system will intercept messages from and invade the privacy of innocent people — including University students.
“(The Carnivore system) gets into issues of privacy and the Fourth Amendment,” said Joel Samaha, a sociology professor familiar with criminal issues.
The U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment guarantees “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures … without probable cause.”
“I don’t know if plowing through millions of bits of information is the best way to find criminal suspects,” said Dan Burk, a University law professor who specializes in issues of intellectual property.
The program was implemented after the FBI experienced an elevated number of criminal investigations in which the criminal suspects used the Internet to communicate with their victims or other criminals. Most Internet service providers do not have the ability to find an individual e-mail amongst all other e-mails in the system, so the FBI developed Carnivore.
“Do we prefer to have machines trying to identify who suspects are or should we prefer having the FBI hire agents to find suspects?” Bud Fitch, a third-year law student questioned. “I think that having a neutral machine (like Carnivore) could be less intrusive toward people’s privacy than an undercover agent.”
Use of Carnivore is monitored by an internal department in the FBI, the U.S. Department of Justice and the Supreme Court. Severe penalties have been implemented to punish anyone found abusing the tool inside or outside of the FBI and the Illinois Institute of Technology is currently reviewing the system to check that it is working properly and following regulations.
The selection of the review team has sparked controversy because two members have ties to President Bill Clinton’s administration and the Department of Justice.
“The FBI has been less than candid about their need to search for information throughout history,” said Burk. “Selecting an independent panel to review the system, such as a national panel of scientists, would be much more effective (for reviewing the system).”
Fitch sees the FBI’s system and its review as a necessary evil:
“There’s a point where we should have privacy, but to catch people we have to give up a certain amount of privacy and freedom.”
Burk and Fitch agree that crime and crime control are changing everyday and demand discussion throughout the University community as well as the general public.
“This is the world students are about to inherit. Things change rapidly and technology is imposing new issues every day,” Burk said.
“We all need to value our freedom. If we can communicate with police about social problems, we can work on adequate solutions,” Fitch concluded.

Melinda Rogers covers science and technology and welcomes comments at [email protected]