Computer Science Illuminated, Third Edition


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Computers and Homeland Security

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States

When the FBI announced plans for an Internet monitoring intitiative, privacy groups and politicians were outraged. But after the September 11, 2001 attacks, the new USA Patriot Act provided support for the FBI’s plan. The tool, called Carnivore, is installed at Internet Service Providers and can scan and collect all the data passing through that ISP’s machines. Criminals of all stripes, including terrorists, have been using technology for years to plan and execute their crimes. Email, websites, banks, and phone lines are all used in the commission of crimes, and the Internet has proven to be a useful tool for those planning destructive activities.

According to the FBI, law enforcement must have the capability to follow criminals into cyberspace. The agency was pushing for Carnivore before the attacks in New York and Pennsylvania, which helped quell, at least temporarily, some of the opposition. With passage of the USA Patriot Act, or Homeland Security Act, the FBI was given the green light to hunt down criminals and terrorists. Government and law enforcement point out that email and the Web allow criminals to circumvent the contstraints of time and geography in recruiting, planning, and communicating among members. Without the use of possibly intrusive technologies such as Carnivore, law keepers would stand no chance in tracking down and convicting criminals.

Carnivore’s supporters also point out that the software is used only against targeted suspects; so that while all data flowing through an ISP may be collected, only specific content is extracted. Furthermore, the FBI must seek application from a federal or state’s attorney general for use of the tool, citing what will be collected and from whom. They must also show the official granting the application that other forms of surveillance have either failed or would prove too dangerous. The stated use of the tool is evidence gathering, not intelligence.

Privacy advocates are not comforted by the government’s statements about the uses to which Carnivore will be put, or by assurances that proper restrictions, such as those noted in the previous paragraph, will prevent Carnivore from being misused. There is a fear that use of the technology opens the door to other encroachments upon privacy. For example, Carnivore is able to track the web surfing habits of all customers of a given ISP. It can read not only email, but instant messages, track online purchases, and access anything else flowing through the ISP. To privacy groups, this is a clear violation of the Fourth Amendment. Aside from Constitutional issues, there is the danger of misuse, error, or malicious use in the hands of the wrong person. Anyone with the password to the Carnivore system at an ISP has access to all of the data being sent and received, and this, say some, is far too great a risk to justify tracking those few with criminal intent.

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