- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 14, 2000

The government's latest high-tech snooping offensive has left many wondering how they will protect their privacy.

In July, it was revealed that the FBI was using an Internet wiretapping system known as Carnivore to intercept and access e-mail and other electronic communications. Through a box that the FBI installs on the Network Operation Centers of Internet Service Providers, Carnivore has the ability to chew through all network messages. The FBI claims to look only at messages sent or received from criminal suspects after obtaining a warrant, but that claim recalls the debate over encryption, a way of scrambling electronic messages such as e-mail or Word documents so they are not readable by outside viewers. Law enforcement sees encryption as a threat because it would allow people, including criminals, to communicate privately.

The FBI sought back doors (essentially electronic "spy-holes" in encryption programs) as well as strict export regulations and key escrow (a system where people are forced to give a copy of their secret encryption key to the government or some other third party). Many civil-rights advocates remained skeptical. It's hard to forget the intrusive campaigns of J. Edgar Hoover's FBI, and how law enforcement abused its authority by wiretapping Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and Vietnam war protesters.

From 1988 to 1998, the number of federal wiretapping authorizations grew 93 percent. But according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, in 1998 fewer than 19 percent of all wiretaps were incriminating. That means 81 percent of law enforcer's targets suffered unnecessary privacy violations.

Americans should ask what kind of convictions the FBI is getting in return for violations of privacy. A recent report from Syracuse University shows that only 45 of the FBI's 12,730 convictions in 1998 involved what would be called serious internal security or terrorism matters the rest are regular crooks that can be caught through less intrusive means. This trade-off between privacy and crime-fighting does not make sense.

With the FBI's Carnivore, consumers have come face to face with a serious threat. If not tightly controlled, this technology allows for increased numbers of unreasonable police searches. Fortunately, the tech industry is providing consumers with help at lightning speed.

On Aug. 25, Yahoo announced that, in conjunction with Zixit's Zixmail, the firm will offer an encrypted e-mail option with its free e-mail service.

Yahoo's new feature will allow users to easily scramble their messages so that only the sender and recipient can read them, even if the message is copied en route. And Yahoo's program is not the only technology to get a marketing boost from Carnivore. There's also Ziplip, Hushmail, Sigaba, and a program aptly called "Antivore" to help users protect their e-mail from prying eyes.

"Carnivore has been very beneficial for us," said Richard Bliss from Sigaba.

Zixit's CEO Doug Kramp agrees. "Carnivore builds awareness. It is making people aware that e-mail is like a postcard," he said. Zixmail wants to be the envelope that covers that postcard, and it looks like the firm is poised to do so.

Easily downloaded, Zixmail enables the user to send secure messages to anyone and will render Carnivore useless as an e-mail wiretapping tool. This will force the FBI back into its proper protocol. When the agency needs to gather information for a reasonable cause, government agents can retrieve it through more traditional and targeted means such as "old street cop" undercover work, informants and electronic bugs.

The same protections that ward off government privacy violations can also shield information from nosy businesses. This is good news but no cause for complacency.

What everyone should be wary of next is an FBI demand that portals such as Yahoo build security holes into their e-mail encryption programs. If past privacy invasions provide any clue, that will be the FBI's next move.



Sonia Arrison is director of the Center for Freedom and Technology at the California-based Pacific Research Institute.

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