Washington, DC – One year after hearings in which the Clinton Administration vigorously defended the FBI’s email-tapping Carnivore surveillance system, Rep. Dick Armey, R-Texas, is asking the new attorney general to reopen the debate.
House Majority Leader Armey sent a letter to Attorney General John Ashcroft Thursday that questions whether Carnivore — since renamed DCS-1000 by the Department of Justice under Janet Reno — violates the personal online privacy of U.S. citizens. He referred to a Monday Supreme Court ruling in which justices found that police must have a search warrant to use heat-seeking technology to determine the contents of an individual’s residence.
"It is reasonable, then, to ask whether the Internet surveillance system formerly known as 'Carnivore' similarly undermines the minimum expectation that individuals have that their personal electronic communication will not be examined by law enforcement devices unless a specific court warrant has been issued," Armey wrote.
Privacy and civil liberties advocates will likely applaud Armey’s request, as it promises to keep alive a battle cry that seemingly fell on deaf ears at the end of last year. For almost three years the Federal Bureau of Investigation has been using the email-sensing technique, which allows it to sift and read through emails sent through the servers of Internet service providers such as AOL or Earthlink.
While agents must have a warrant to conduct searches, critics complain they have unlimited access to all Internet users’ personal correspondence, whether it is covered by warrant or not.
The analogy to telephone wiretaps is often used by opponents of Carnivore: While law enforcement can tap specific phone lines with a warrant, they are not allowed by law to listen in on every call connected by the phone company in the hopes of catching one criminal. So, critics ask, why shouldn't the same protection also be applied to the Internet?
The FBI has responded by insisting that its searches are based on key words and names and only those emails covered by a warrant are read by agents. Officials also claim that such surveillance is necessary to fight crime in what Reno often termed the "wild west" of the Net, which invariably includes correspondence between drug dealers, child-porn operators and the like.
But civil libertarians don't see it that way. "This is just another way in which the government’s War on Drugs is a war against you," says George Getz, a spokesman for the National Libertarian Party. "If Republicans and Democrats alike had the stomach, they would have killed [Carnivore] instead of renaming it."
After hearings last July, the Justice Department initiated a study that has since been refuted by both individual congressmen and privacy advocates. The study found that Carnivore does not abridge privacy. Critics say the research was conducted by a firm with close ties to the administration and should not be the final word on the controversial issue.
"Because I am confident that you will take a much more constructive approach to this issue, I wanted to share my privacy concern with you directly," Armey wrote to Ashcroft, a former Republican senator.
"I believe the FBI is making a good-faith effort to fight crime in the most efficient way possible," Armey continued. "But I also believe the Founders quite clearly decided to sacrifice that kind of efficiency for the sake of protecting citizens from the danger of an overly intrusive government."
DOJ Spokesman Chris J. Watney said Ashcroft is reviewing Armey’s letter and the issue at hand and "will respond directly to Mr. Armey." As for whether to expect a public response to the general outcry against Carnivore, she said Ashcroft will make one "eventually, when he makes a determination on how he wants to proceed on this."
And Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., who joined Democrat Jerry Nadler of New York in providing some of the most vocal criticism to Carnivore in last year’s hearings, said Thursday he will call for more.
Barr said "the extent to which government agencies, such as the FBI, use technology to invade the privacy of American citizens, with virtually no oversight, is frightening."
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