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LCS May Review FBI’s Carnivore

By Frank Dabek


MIT researchers at the Laboratory for Computer Science are among those being considered by the Justice Department to conduct an independent review of the FBI’s Carnivore Internet surveillance system.

Attorney General Janet Reno announced earlier this month that a still unnamed university would conduct a review of Carnivore and set guidelines for its future use, allaying widespread public concern over its privacy implications. When deployed by the FBI on a computer network, Carnivore examines e-mail messages and searches for messages addressed to a suspect. Civil liberties groups worry, however, that the FBI may use the software to spy on the general public.

Hal Abelson ’73, a professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, said that government representatives had contacted Professor Ronald Rivest, also of the EECS department, in regards to participating in the review.

MIT is “one of the universities on the list” of potential reviewers, Abelson said. However, “nothing has been decided yet,” he said.

A Department of Justice spokeswoman, Chris Watney, would not confirm that MIT was being considered for the project, but said that numerous universities have been in touch with the DOJ. Rivest could not be reached for comment.

Rivest’s contact with the government touched off an informal, internal discussion of the merits of participation in the review, Abelson said. “If the conditions are right I think it would be a good thing to do.”

Those conditions require that MIT researchers would have access to the source code for Carnivore and influence over how the findings will be made public and the scope of the review. Any review “has to be in the context of policy. ... You have to look at the whole thing,” Abelson said.

At an August 10 press conference, Reno said that the university review team would have “total access to any information they need to conduct their review” and that the findings of the team would be available for public comment.

At a press conference yesterday, Reno said that a university would not be named until September 15th. A statement of work and expectations for the review will be posted on the DOJ’s website tomorrow at 5 p.m. The posting will “ensure that all the universities that want to be considered will be able to apply based on the same standards, and everyone, including privacy and policy experts, will understand exactly what we are expecting from the review process.”

Those standards will include cost, technical competence, independence from the department, and ability to evaluate the system fairly, Watney said.

Ten business days after the expectations are posted, a two-day selection period will take place and recommendations will be forwarded to Reno, who will make the final decision.

Court decision could impact system

A recent appeals court decision has raised questions about the Carnivore system. The District of Columbia Court of Appeals ruled that the Federal Communications Commission had granted the FBI too much authority to wiretap cellular phones.

The August 16 decision, which dealt with “packet-mode data,” may also apply to, and curtail, Internet surveillance devices such as Carnivore.