WASHINGTON (07/26/2000) - Carnivore, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation's crime-fighting Internet tool, is in danger of having its teeth pulled - at least until technical experts satisfy Congress that the system is not a threat to individual privacy.
After a hearing Monday of the House Judiciary Committee's Constitution Subcommittee, FBI officials noted that no one on the subcommittee - some of whose members were sharply critical of the program - suggested Carnivore be shelved, bureau spokesman Paul Bresson said.
But members expressed fear that the program threatens basic constitutional protections against unlawful search and seizure.
"Constitutional rights don't end where cyberspace begins," said Rep. John Conyers, a Democrat from Michigan.
The congressmen appear willing to let the system continue operating until after two academic institutions review it independently, Bresson said. The FBI proposed the review when the flap over Carnivore broke about two weeks ago. The review would demonstrate that the system captures only the limited information the bureau claims.
During the hearing, FBI and Justice Department officials reiterated their argument that Carnivore can be programmed only to capture the "to" and "from" lines on e-mail - something akin to a long-established and legal process of capturing phone numbers dialed to and from a particular phone.
And, like phone taps, Carnivore also can be used to capture entire e-mail messages.
Donald Kerr, head of the FBI laboratory, said what Carnivore captures is spelled out by a court order, and that it would be a felony to do more than the order prescribed.
That did not satisfy some members of the committee.
Several members remarked that the bureau is basically saying, "trust us."
Rep. Spencer Bachus, a Republican from Alabama, reminded the witnesses that government agents have abused their authority in the past to investigate innocent people. "J. Edgar Hoover - look at what he did," Bachus said.
Alan Davidson, an attorney for the Center for Democracy and Technology, said Carnivore highlights the need for new and stronger privacy laws to cover the Internet. He told the subcommittee that the kinds of personal papers and information that people once kept in a desk in their home now are stored in cyberspace, on network servers that are not covered by the Constitutional protections against illegal search and seizure.