A federal judge this week ordered the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation to get ready to let an interested privacy advocacy group have a look at information surrounding the agency's controversial Carnivore e-mail surveillance system.
Privacy advocates at the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) had asked the judge to smack a temporary restraining order on Carnivore until the FBI makes public crucial information about the effort.
Washington-based EPIC has charged the FBI with breaking the Freedom of Information Act by refusing to begin the process of turning over information on Carnivore within a mandatory 10-day period.
"The judge directed the FBI to get started very quickly and indicated that he is going to supervise that process," said David Sobel, EPIC's general counsel.
Sobel said EPIC wanted to turn up the heat on the FBI to turn over documents because Carnivore is now in a critical political stage.
"We have argued in support of the need of expedition on this issue, because the [Clinton] administration has proposed changing wiretap laws and it is critical for the public to now have as much information as possible," Sobel said.
EPIC and others have heavily blasted the FBI recently for the use of the Carnivore system. Specifically, privacy advocates claim the system can comb through millions of e-mail messages in its efforts to monitor traffic from ISPs and intercept e-mail messages sent by criminals.
Similarly, a surveillance bill in the United Kingdom that gives the government sweeping powers to access e-mail and other encrypted information is set to become law on Oct. 5.
EPIC's legal action flies in the face of a recent FBI promise to disclose the technical specifications of Carnivore to a select group to allay privacy concerns.
Late last month before a congressional committee, assistant director of the FBI's Laboratory Division, Donald Kerr, defended and stood by Carnivore's capabilities.
The system does not "search through the contents of every message and collect those that contain certain keywords like 'bomb' or 'drugs,' " Kerr said. Instead, he explained, the system sniffs out messages based on parameters prescribed only by court order.
EPIC, however, is holding out for full public disclosure of certain information about the system. The group wants released all records about the system, including information about the software that the application resides on and legal analysis done on the system's use.
The judge last week ordered the FBI to get back to the court immediately after assessing the amount of information EPIC has asked for and how long it will take to ship that out.