FBI's Carnivore: Gnawing at liberty?

Opinions in the US about the FBI's covert email surveillance are mixed. The essential question: which comes first, freedom or security?
Written by Matthew Rothenberg, Contributor

"They that give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety." -- Benjamin Franklin, 1759.

These words by one of America's leading tricentegenarians -- and the inventor of the glass harmonica, not to mention the flexible catheter -- have proven remarkably prescient when it comes to recent discussions of privacy and security on the Web.

Franklin's words were cited again this week in TalkBacks from ZDNet News readers disturbed by reports that the Federal Bureau of Investigation is covertly using a superfast system called Carnivore to searches of emails in hopes of flagging messages from criminal suspects.

Many posters were understandably edgy about the prospect of the FBI running unchecked through their personal correspondence in hopes of nabbing ne'er-do-wells.

"The 4th Amendment to the United States Constitution states that 'The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized'," noted Colorado engineer Robert Perry.

"It seems to me that this system certainly violates the condition that a warrant must particularly describe the place, things and persons to be seized," Perry wrote. "Moreover, one can -- and should -- also make the connection that blanket surveillance of the innocent clearly violates the provision that unreasonable searches are prohibited."

"In short, contrary to the article's assertion, there has been a law on the books which would specifically prohibit this system from being used. It has been on the books since about 1790. Shame on the FBI for neglecting this!"

Meanwhile, some readers were of the opinion that innocent users have little to fear and much to gain from the FBI's inquiries.

"Let the FBI scan people's email," wrote Chicago developer Kyle Novak. "It's a simple concept: if you're not a criminal, then you have nothing to worry about. I would much rather have the FBI scan emails and make our country a safer place than not."

Southern California IT manager Steve Smith said he thought email surveillance should extend to the analogue world: "Not only does this not bother me, but I'd love to see cameras on every street corner so if there were a murder or theft, they could follow the person to his ultimate destination."

"I love reading comments like many of the above," wrote "SC" who claimed to be a former department of defence employee. "Our rights! Our rights! Above all else is national security, even above every individual's personal well-being. (I know that this method does not pinpoint national security, but the statement is still true.)"

Other TalkBack posters were unimpressed by appeals to public safety.

"The whole national security thing is bullshit," wrote "Charles" from Seattle. "If a terrorist organization that was good at what they do was set on causing troubles in the United States, they could do it without ever being detected by Echelon [the US government's alleged electronic-surveillance network] or this FBI email scanning system."

"Let me point out the bombings around the country that have taken place over the last 15 years as an example as to how our government has failed despite all their anti-privacy tools. National security is simply a guise. Time for you to admit that and stop telling all of us that it's OK if our rights are being violated on a daily basis -- maybe even on an hourly one."

"Many of the comments here cause me to worry about the health of our freedom as a people," wrote "Christopher", a soldier based in Arizona. "With so many complacent and apathetic of government abuse, we shall fall into a trap of tyranny that cannot be escaped."

"The founders of our country knew the dangers of government and set in place checks against government abuse. However, as the government abuses us, we ignore the checks that were created for our protection."

"As a previous poster indicated, if the British government could have monitored the communications of the colonists, we would never have broken the bonds of tyranny that King George had over us."

"We are steadily moving to a point where the abuses of the government could spin out of control, and we are allowing our most desperate and most dreadful course of action to be made impossible. If the government can crush revolt at its whim, then we will ever be at its mercy."

"Thomas Jefferson penned, 'Whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it,' and every time we allow the government to grow in power at the expense of the people, we put ourselves in jeopardy of losing the ability to free ourselves of them if it goes too far."

Find out who's spying on you and how they're doing it in our exclusive Echelon News Special.

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