A relative who works for the Middle Eastern department of one of America's largest universities told me the other day that her e-mail is being "tapped." When I asked her to explain why she believed this was happening, she said that before Sept. 11, it took about 30 seconds for e-mail from one member of the department to reach another.
A few days after the attacks, she noticed that all e-mail from within or outside the department now takes about 45 minutes to reach its destination. She also said that she is now addressing funny notes to the FBI agents who she believes are reading her e-mail.
My relative's concerns about her department's e-mail are not far-fetched. But thanks to Congress, if there is a legal authority such as the FBI tapping into her e-mail, they might never get to read her messages, just the addresses she is sending them to.
The attacks on New York and Washington have produced many consequences, one of which is the resurrection of "Carnivore." Carnivore is the FBI program that eats e-mails like potato chips, and can be programmed either to read the entire content of an e-mail message or just to look for keywords.
In a truly Orwellian move, the FBI tried to rename the program DCS1000 last year. The name change didn't fool anybody, and Carnivore was on the hit list of many on Capitol Hill who were worried about the government eroding privacy standards.
The increased fear of further attacks, however, gives Carnivore a second chance. Since government officials believe Osama bin Laden and his network used the Internet regularly to communicate, Attorney General John Ashcroft wanted the right to be able to read people's e-mail as part of a package of new security measures he introduced recently in Congress.
Carnivore is probably out there churning through e-mails (which will have the affect of making almost all e-mail a little slower), but the Senate and the House have placed restrictions on what Carnivore can read - basically it can scan only e-mail addresses.
Once the government finds an e-mail it believes is connected to bin Laden's network, it then must ask a judge for a warrant to read it.
The big loser as the result of the new fears about e-mail is encryption. Encryption programs like PGP (which stands for Pretty Good Privacy) and others may face increased scrutiny. The programs, which allow people to send encoded messages, have been a sore spot for agencies like the FBI for many years, although privacy groups had largely persuaded Clinton administration officials to leave the programs alone.
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