Carnivore review: A 'stacked deck?'

Civil liberties leaders blast the DoJ's academic review committee of FBI snooping software, saying its members are government insiders

The American Civil Liberties Union and a congressional leader have roundly criticised the Department of Justice, saying it "stacked the deck" when it appointed a committee to review the FBI's Carnivore Internet surveillance system.

The panel of experts were appointed to review the security and reliability of Carnivore and whether the software violated search and seizure provisions of the Constitution.

However, digital detective work revealed the names of the reviewers to be former White House insiders, including past members of the National Security Agency and former employees and consultants to the Departments of Defence, Justice, and Treasury.

"By selecting people with extensive government ties for what is supposedly an independent review, the Executive Branch has shown once again that it cannot be trusted with carte blanche authority to conduct searches," ACLU associate director Barry Steinhardt said Wednesday in a prepared statement.

On 26 September, the Department of Justice selected the Illinois Institute of Technology Research Institute (IITRI) to conduct the Carnivore review.

The following day, the Justice Department released IITRI's proposal to the Internet, with names of the committee members digitally blacked out using an insecure method of censoring PDF files. Within 24 hours, the missing names had been recovered from the document. John Young, editor of free information site Cryptome.org, posted the data on the Internet.

The members of the proposed review team include: J Allen Crider, a senior program analyst at IITRI, who worked for various government contractors on projects at the FBI and NASA; Mary Ranade, a senior computer scientist for IITRI, who worked at the Internal Revenue Service and the Defence Technology Centre; and Steve Mencik, science advisor for IITRI, who has consulted with the IRS and the National Security Agency and acted as an advisor for Presidential Decision Directive-63, a review that yielded the National Plan for Critical Infrastructure Protection.

Their connections mean the team members are qualified to do their work, not that they are biased, said Harold Krent, professor of the Chicago Kent College of Law, who is also a member of the Carnivore team. "I can't imagine that anyone would take it seriously that, if you worked in the government for one day, you are tainted and pro-government," said Krent, who himself worked for the Department of Justice during the 1980s. "That would suggest that all research is of a biased nature, [because] everyone at universities get government grants."

Krent said he had spent as much time opposing the DoJ as defending it.

Congress has also questioned the makeup of the review committee. Last week, house Republican leader Dick Armey of Texas slammed the Justice Department and the Clinton Administration for inadvertently releasing the names of the review committee. He also criticised the agencies for apparent favouritism in its committee appointments.

"This Department of Justice proposal has confirmed my fears," Armey said in a statement. "This important issue deserves a truly independent review, not a whitewash."

Previously, several universities -- including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Purdue University -- reportedly declined to submit and application to the Justice Department to review Carnivore because of fears that the process would not be open. The Department of Justice required all applicants to agree to letting the agency edit the final report on Carnivore and to not release the source code to the program.

FBI and Department of Justice officials were not made available for comment.

They can see you... Read about how and why in Surveillance, a ZDNet News Special.

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