Tech Bytes – Tid Bits in Tech News: Eating into Civil Liberties…Carnivore is a Threat to Digital Commerce

Yesterday, the House of Representatives held a hearing on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI’s) controversial e-mail surveillance system. The software program is named “Carnivore” because it purportedly allows the Bureau to get to the “meat” quickly. The Carnivore system is terrifying because the “meat” can include all of the e-mail on a network, including a list of what mail is sent and the actual content of the communication.

In a recent interview, Section Chief of the FBI’s Cyber Technology Section, Marcus Thomas, explained that Carnivore “can do a ton of things; that’s why it’s illegal to do so without a clear order from the court.”

Civil liberties as well as a reasonable expectation of privacy are thrown to the wayside by the new program.

Thomas’ candor provides a hint of the problems that Carnivore could create for consumers in the communications marketplace. Traditional surveillance techniques require a court order to specify targets, such as particular phone lines or a particular suspect. By comparison, Carnivore is less discriminate. It targets an entire e-mail network and all of the messages that pass through it, which would be analogous to an entire telephone call center.

Once Carnivore is installed on a network it is able to collect information on everyone who uses the network and not just a legitimate suspect. To date, federal crime fighters have been hesitant to explain what happens to this “extra” data.

Civil liberties as well as a reasonable expectation of privacy are thrown to the wayside by the new program, which makes clear the threat to individual privacy posed by government agencies.

White House chief of staff John Podesta recently called for “harmonization” between existing wiretap laws and e-mail surveillance. We expect little harmony in the marketplace unless private communications between innocent consumers are given the same respect and protection by federal investigators as other forms of communication.