The Justice Department is reaching out to major universities to conduct a full review of the Carnivore e-mail surveillance program to help decide its future use, Attorney General Janet Reno said Thursday.
But privacy advocates argue the process will result in a "rubber-stamp" approval of the controversial system.
"The university review team will have total access to any information they need to conduct their review," Reno told her weekly news conference.
The team report will be made public and a review team of top department officials will ask privacy and law enforcement experts to comment before making a final recommendation to Reno.
"I would hope we could do it quickly," Reno said.
Assistant Attorney General Steve Colgate, a career official who is supervising the review and will chair the department review committee, said Reno might be able to choose a university in 10 days and that final recommendations from the university and from the department panel might reach her by Dec. 1.
"Carnivore" is the name for an FBI system for monitoring e-mail transmissions that has caused an uproar in Congress and among privacy and civil liberties advocates.
The system is composed of a computer running the Microsoft Windows NT operating system and software that scans and captures "packets," the standard unit of Internet traffic, as they travel through an internet service provider's network. The FBI installs a Carnivore unit at a provider's network station and configures it to capture only e-mail going to or from the person under investigation.
FBI officials say they obtain court orders for the surveillance and see only those e-mails covered by the orders. But privacy advocates say only the FBI knows what Carnivore can do, and Internet providers are not allowed access to the system while it is installed.
"As much as possible will be made public, and we will get as much input from outside as possible," Colgate said Thursday.
Privacy Advocates Skeptical
"This sounds to me like they are trying to select a rubber stamp," David Banisar, senior fellow of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a Washington-based advocacy group, told the Washington Post. "There is grave danger in the Justice Department getting to choose who is going to be the independent outside reviewer... Justice has been just as supportive of this process as the FBI so they are two peas in a pod here."
Reno and Colgate said that the FBI, state and local law enforcers and privacy and civil liberties groups will be consulted not only on the choice of a university and the scope of its review but also for their reactions to any recommendations from the university panel.
The university team will have complete access to all hardware and software involved, including the computer source code for Carnivore, Colgate said.
The source code, however, is likely to be withheld from the public, because it is a trade secret of the company that produced the software, Colgate said. He said the commercial software had been modified by the FBI.
The department's chief science and technology officer, Donald Prosnitz, formerly a physicist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, has contacted three major universities and will probably contact another six before recommending one to Reno, Colgate said.
"Some folks have volunteered to do this for free," Colgate said. He said Reno would select a university with computer security and Internet expertise but the school might also bring outside experts into its review.
Colgate anticipated that among the schools that Prosnitz will contact is the University of California at San Diego, which he said had had some preliminary discussions with the FBI about a review before Reno expanded the review to include officials outside the FBI.
Reno said Colgate will chair the department panel that analyzes the university's recommendations for her. Also on that panel will be FBI Assistant Director Donald Kerr, a nuclear physicist who heads the FBI laboratory; Prosnitz; Ed Dumont, the Justice Department's chief privacy officer; and a senior representative of the department's criminal division.
— The Associated Press contributed to this report