Alarm over FBI 'big brother' spy program

August 25, 2000

Reports that the FBI has a program that can intercept private email messages is raising alarm among some of the biggest internet service providers in America - universities and colleges.

Already fending off computer hackers, including mischievous students, and forced by law to maintain an unusually high level of security, university technology administrators say the law enforcement agency's new Carnivore program is another headache as they prepare for classes to resume.

"The big brother aspect of it has everyone worried, and rightfully so," said Peter Honeyman, director of the centre for information technology integration at the University of Michigan. "There is a massive security threat in the kind of networks we deploy here, because we deploy the same stuff everybody deploys, and there is no immunity whatsoever from snooping."

Carnivore, whose existence was disclosed this summer, allows federal agents to sort through large quantities of email messages. The FBI says it has already used the system 25 times, including 16 times this year, but only to monitor the correspondence of criminal suspects. The program is under congressional review in response to public protests.

Mr Honeyman said Carnivore was just the latest of many similar issues university technology administrators had to contend with. "To be honest, the greatest threat here is... illegal snooping of our networks. I'm much more concerned about undergrads getting the president's password. We are presented with real security threats constantly. And they're fundamentally insider attacks."

Because federal laws require that students' personal information is kept confidential, universities already use an increasing amount of cryptography to protect computer records, including email messages. "We have things we are required to protect," said Genevieve Stubbs, an attorney for Texas A&M University. "I think (Carnivore) would just be like any other issue relating to information at institutions."

Jim Roche, director of research for Educause, the consortium of academic computing administrators, said: "We've followed this but this hasn't become an issue with our members just yet. That's not to say it might not become an issue."

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