THE FBI recently revealed a startling new government surveillance program for the Internet that should alarm all of us who care about the privacy of our e-mails.
This newest snooping system, originally dubbed "Carnivore," is designed to sift through every e-mail of a suspect's Internet service provider, capturing all incoming and outgoing communications.
The name conjured up so many unflattering images of flesh-eating animals that on Tuesday the FBI renamed the controversial Internet surveillance tool. Now, it's known as DCS1000, an alpha-numeric name that doesn't stir up any images because it's meaningless.
DCS1000 raises immediate and grave constitutional concerns, and Congress, currently considering the fate of this new surveillance mechanism, should be keenly aware of the delicate balance between justifiable national security concerns and the protection of individual privacy.
Without strict new standards for this program, for every legitimate e-mail that DCS1000 captures, there will be many e-mails unrelated to any criminal investigation that the government will read -- including yours and mine. Indeed, without adequate safeguards, the system may also be programmed to pick up the use of particular words or phrases written by anyone on the Internet.
Clearly, the law should permit and encourage the FBI to conduct reasonable criminal investigations and should not allow the Internet's expansive connectivity to hamper such efforts. But the FBI cannot be permitted to use the technology to add to its already exponentially increasing surveillance power if it means a concomitant decrease in individual privacy.
As if the DCS1000 program were not enough, witness the FBI's unfolding plans to conduct investigations over the World Wide Web.
The bureau, it was recently discovered, is developing a method to listen in on the increasing number of voice telephone calls placed over the Internet and to monitor live online discussions on a system known as Internet Relay Chat. Those stark revelations were made public through Freedom of Information Act documents obtained by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a technology civil liberties group in Washington.
And, further tipping the balance away from individual privacy, the Philadelphia Inquirer has reported that the FBI in 1999 planted in the keyboard of an organized crime suspect a newfangled device that stored everything the suspect typed into his computer, including the password for the encryption program that guarded the files on his hard drive.
The FBI's attitude to the outcry over the DCS1000 program, as reported by the New York Times, should be seen as extremely troubling, to say the least.
"The public," an FBI spokesman told the newspaper, "should be concerned about the criminals out there abusing this stuff and not the good guys."
Not the good guys? Not ordinary Americans' private communications?
This outlook is evidence enough that safeguards are needed to ensure the FBI does indeed concern itself with "the good guys."
Congress, which is debating these issues, should establish strict standards for the FBI's new Internet surveillance programs, beginning with its DCS1000 program.
The FBI says that DCS1000 is more protective of individual privacy than typical phone-tapping tools, because the system can be programmed to filter out e-mails that investigators should not see.
It equates the system to "pen registers" and "trap and trace" devices, which record the telephone numbers of phone calls that suspects place and receive. DCS1000, it claims, can be programmed in much the same way, in order to yield only communications to and from a particular suspect.
However, analogizing DCS1000 to a traditional phone tap is problematic: The technology hugely widens the scope of intercepted communications, capturing thousands of e-mail conversations at the same time. Because of that, even if some sort of electronic filtering is applied to the e-mails, scores of irrelevant and private communications will be read by government investigators.
Furthermore, unlike a phone tap, DCS1000 must be specifically programmed to be restrictive in its searches for communications.
Strong standards needed
Congress should implement clear legal standards for the electronic programming of such searches, with the intention of minimizing privacy invasion.
It used to be that the federal government was hampered in its surveillance efforts not only by the basic constitutional guarantees of the Fourth Amendment -- which offers protection from unreasonable search and seizure -- but also by its technological incapacity to engage in widespread surveillance of communications.
Now, with the advent of global communications, the government's power is increasing exponentially.
As the FBI pours out proposals for new surveillance technologies, we must all ensure that their necessary national security function does not exponentially whittle away our individual privacy.
Duncan Levin, a student at Yale Law School, has written extensively on issues of national security policy for Perspective