IT community resists Carnivore bill

Despite calls for tighter national security, delegates at the ISPcon tradeshow in Las Vegas expressed concern over a proposed bill that could pave the way for broader implementations of Carnivore, the FBI’s top-secret Internet monitoring program, arguing that the advanced packet sniffer could compromise civil liberties.

On the ISPcon trade show floor, representatives from many service providers, including SBC Communications Inc. and Progress Telecom, refused to comment on Carnivore altogether. That reluctance to speak could indicate a fear of incurring the government’s wrath or being labeled unpatriotic, according to the chief executive officer of one midsize ISP, who requested anonymity.

“People are afraid of Carnivore because it’s new,” the source said. “It’s a natural reaction to be wary of anything new, especially if it involves the government.”

“Carnivore has created a lot of angst, first because it’s from the government, and second because people don’t really know anything about it,” added Linda de los Reyes, marketing director of Palo Alto, Calif.-based security firm SSH Communications Security.

“It’s like giving the keys of your house to the government,” de los Reyes added. “When they think they might need to use it, they’ll use it.”

SSH’s policy is to leave the use of its security products to the discretion of its customers, she said.

“Sometimes the government gets out of hand,” agreed Byron Rashed, SSH’s senior marketing communications manager. “Encryption is not the root of all evil. We have to look into it more and see exactly what they’re going to be using Carnivore for.”

Other observers, such as John Zalud, a partner at Sacramento, Calif.-based Internet consulting firm, have been even more vocal in denouncing Carnivore. To Zalud, the real problem is not that Carnivore can be used to track suspects’ communications, but rather that the proposed bill goes too far in allowing surveillance without court orders.

“This intrusion into our private life, the monitoring of our most personal thoughts and communications, makes the United States feel like the repressive Communist regimes of old,” Zalud said. “If we become the ‘land of the watched’ instead of the ‘land of the free,’ then we’ve let the terrorists win.”

Zalud said that if the proposed bill becomes law, businesses are likely to suffer from a dampening effect on free enterprise.

“For most companies in America, the mentality of conformity, the feeling of ‘Am I being watched’ will cast a pall over innovation and free thinking,” he noted. “The rapid pace of technology development will slow as government begins to review new products, insisting on the inclusion of backdoors that make monitoring of privileged communications easy.”

Moreover, Carnivore may not even serve its stated purpose. Terrorists can easily adopt other means of communications, such as coded messages or couriers, if they know their e-mail is being monitored, Zalud said.

Last week, U.S. lawmakers introduced the PATRIOT (Provide Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism) Act into the House of Representatives, a bill that seeks to expand law enforcement officials’ surveillance powers in order to thwart would-be terrorists who use the Internet as a means of communication.

The proposed legislation is widely seen as a toned-down version of the Anti-Terrorism Act drafted earlier. But it has still drawn the ire of civil liberties advocates, including the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union), who argue that widespread use of Carnivore would pave the way for inappropriate privacy infringements.

Still, the PATRIOT Act is widely expected to pass swiftly into law, thanks in part to pressure from the Bush administration on Congress. Administration officials have said that current snooping technologies are inadequate to ensure national security.

“Law enforcement tools created decades ago were crafted for rotary telephones – not e-mail, the Internet, mobile communications, and voice mail,” said U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft on Oct. 2. Ashcroft added that moving forward with currently used methods would be akin to “sending our troops into the modern field of battle with antique weapons.”

Laws passed the week of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon have already given federal and state attorneys the power to order ISPs to temporarily install Carnivore, but the PATRIOT Act seeks to authorize even broader Carnivore implementations.

The proposed bill also contains provisions that would classify certain intrusive acts, such as Web site defacements that are “calculated to influence or affect the conduct of government by intimidation or coercion,” as terrorist offences.