NEWS that the FBI has a software tool that allows it to snoop on e-mail and other Internet traffic has an ominous sound. Shouldn't the freewheeling Net be free of such intrusive government activity?
That question is being asked on the other side of the Atlantic, too. In Britain, the government is shaping policies to allow police surveillance of the Web. The draft law includes a requirement to give police the encryption keys to any coded online text. Warning cries have come from both privacy advocates and those who worry such policies could stunt the growth of British e-commerce.
It probably doesn't help that the proposed British law is known as "RIP" (for Regulation of Investigatory Powers). The FBI program is called "Carnivore," since it cuts through Internet traffic to the "meat" it's looking for.
Violent imagery aside, what's really going on here is the inevitable gravitation of government regulation and enforcement toward a realm where all kinds of transactions are being carried out. That includes, unfortunately, many transactions that are illegal.
The same gravitation occurred long ago with telephones. Phone tapping by crime fighters raised civil-liberties concerns, too, though a legal framework was established to allow it to be done with safeguards against infringing basic rights.
The same kind of framework is urgently needed before the "tapping" of e-mails, Web site visits, and other online activities becomes general police practice. The administration has proposed a law to set a legal standard for online surveillance, and Congress should give the matter priority.
The potential for abuse is greater with Carnivore than with a simple phone tap. The program's capabilities are potentially sweeping. Carnivore can briefly eye everything as it decides just what to pluck and copy. Constitutional protections against unreasonable searches and seizures will have to be rethought in this context and diligently applied.
Britain, without a bill of rights spelling out limitations on government power, should carefully write into its law respect for privacy.
Allowing police to pursue investigations into the e-realm makes sense. Crimes ranging from financial fraud to child pornography have gone online. The forces of law and order must do likewise, but with due safeguards against abuses.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society