FBI, are you listening?

Thomas R. Temin

In the classic Mario Puzo novel The Godfather, elder Don Corleone rarely uses the phone, simply assuming the authorities would be listening in. Today, not only is the phone booth disappearing, people routinely blab out loud in all sorts of public places on their cell phones. Yet, the same people are horrified at the thought of digital wireless conversations being tapped.

The concept of privacy evolves as technology and human behavior change. Today, we put up with surveillance cameras, baggage searches and data collection on our purchasing and travel habits because we benefit from fewer muggings, safer travel and preferred-customer perks.

Enter Carnivore, the FBI's star-crossed effort at ferreting out the e-mail communications of suspected criminals. The public just isn't buying it.

Perhaps this repugnance stems from a general distrust of the FBI. But it also has to do with the differences between voice and e-mail communications'the fact that the FBI must obtain a court order to use Carnivore notwithstanding.

A spoken conversation'assuming we're not talking about voice over IP'exists for only a moment in time. A seemingly meaningless utterance such as, 'I'd like to shoot that president!' has no existence beyond the two seconds it takes to say it.

But as an e-mail, it not only persists, it can also be endlessly reproduced. To capture it, police don't need a real-time wiretap. True, phone calls can be tapped, but not on the mass level and in the automated way e-mail can be filtered.

The public revelation of Carnivore and the FBI's subsequent attempts to explain it have failed to take into account this difference in the modes of communications and people's attitudes about them.

The same phenomenon occurred several years ago when the Social Security Administration tested putting information on the Web. Access required the same five personal identifiers used to get the data in paper form. The agency had to go into a defensive posture, and the program never moved beyond a test.

Carnivore is probably a useful tool. But the FBI should heed the advice of skeptics and let objective observers have a close-up look to make sure it operates as advertised.

Thomas R. Temin

Editorial director

E-mail: editor@gcn.com

Stay Connected

Sign up for our newsletter.

I agree to this site's Privacy Policy.