They're reading our mail

By Vin Suprynowicz
web posted July 31, 2000

Congressfolk from both sides of the aisle unloaded on the FBI in Washington hearings on July 24, airing concerns about the agency's ability to tap into just about anyone's e-mail by deploying the new "Carnivore" sort-and-read software in the offices of any Internet Service Provider (ISP.)

FBI Assistant Director Donald M. Kerr testified Carnivore has been deployed 16 times this year -- and 25 times since it was first developed two years ago -- primarily to investigate suspected cases of folks using the Internet to organize ventures in child pornography, terrorism, and credit card fraud.

But are we to believe an FBI unit with a warrant to investigate some specific person or organization for planning "terrorism" won't end up sorting and reading the e-mail of scores or even hundreds of innocent Americans -- perhaps because they merely receive mail from the party being investigated, deleting it unread?

And if, as their voracious software sorts for and locates "key words" referring to taxes, firearms, interest rates, or sexual activities, they stumble across correspondence not under the original purview of their investigation, but which their finely-honed "law enforcement instincts" tell them appears "suspicious" or merely "interesting" ... we're expected to believe their supervisor will tell them "No no, purge that message from your system, and all record of who sent it; we're only authorized to investigate this one porno ring, not to take note of people moving their income offshore out of sight of the IRS," or "We're only looking for this one particular set of terrorist bombers, that cross-talk e-mail from someone mentioning he's come across an unregistered Thompson gun is none of our business"?

Oh. Sure.

FBI and Justice Department witnesses stressed to committee member John Conyers, D-Mich., that it would be a violation of federal law for an agent to abuse the intelligence-gathering ability of Carnivore to collect information about non-suspects. "They're not going to unilaterally break the law," promised Tom Talleur, a former federal law enforcement official.

"If they do, they're going to jail."

Well, don't we all feel safer now? Like that incident in which the Clinton White House hired a couple of barroom bouncers to pore through hundreds of secret, raw, FBI files on the Clintons' political enemies, looking for anything that could be used against them -- remember that?

How many people are now serving time for that violation? How many FBI personnel have ever gone to jail for listening to the wrong phone conversations while engaged in an authorized wiretap? How many IRS agents, for perusing secret tax records on their lunch hours, just for fun? Refresh our memories, Mr. Talleur.

This technology is insidious. The question is not whether it will be misused to purposely create a chilling affect on political dissidents -- or to enforce the unconstitutional monopoly of the FDIC over many commercial and banking activities -- or to gather information of a sexual nature for potential political blackmail -- or to help the IRS track down those with new strategies for tax avoidance. So long as federal agencies are authorized to investigate such things, the question is only how often, and when.

And for all their bellowing and table-pounding for the benefit of the galleries, we shouldn't hold our breaths expecting Rep. Conyers' committee -- or any other current power in the Congress -- to much shorten their chains.

The Constitution never envisioned any federalized domestic police force.

We are now learning why.

Few genies are ever put back in their bottles. No technological "fix" is likely to pull the teeth of "Carnivore" for long. If the congressmen mean to restore our privacy, they must vastly reduce the number and size of these federal agencies, back to the minimal level necessary to deal with actual, documentable, incidents of foreign-based terror and espionage.

Until that time -- though encryption for privacy is probably worth a try -- the best advice in today's America, unfortunately, is to assume that someone is, indeed, "reading your mail."

Vin Suprynowicz is assistant editorial page editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. His book, "Send in the Waco Killers: Essays on the Freedom Movement, 1993-1998," is available at $24.95 postpaid by dialing 1-800-244-2224; or via web site

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