'Carnivore' eats privacy

Outside editorials

Posted: Wednesday, February 27, 2002

The following editorial appeared in Tuesday's Providence Journal:

We are familiar with the warnings: There are terrorists on U.S. soil still plotting our destruction, and the only way to thwart them is to give up a lot of our privacy. Let the government tap our phones and open our mail - whatever it takes ...

Still, if we are to be subject to a massive loss of privacy, we should at least see what we are getting for our nakedness. We ought to be able to see how effective the unauthorized wiretaps and zealous incarcerations have been - the specific circumstances, what was gained in national security protection, what was lost in privacy protection. Thus we could at least say whether we chose wisely in giving up some of our civil liberties for the cause.

Fortunately, the Congress included a provision in the recently passed 21st century Department of Justice Appropriations Authorization Act that calls on the Justice Department to report fully on its use of "Carnivore," an astonishingly invasive technology that lets the FBI search through the text of tens of thousands of e-mails in seconds.

Carnivore ... gives the FBI the ability to go through thousands of unrelated e-mails when it only needs to find one. While phone conversations go through a single line, e-mails are all centrally processed by an internet service provider (ISP), thus creating the potential for the FBI to look through far more text than it needs.

Yes, we know that the terrorists did some of their plotting using e-mail from public libraries, and perhaps we might have found something if we had somebody monitoring every e-mail communication. But terrorists are increasingly sophisticated at concealing their messages, using various encryptions... It is unclear how effective "Carnivore" will be in eating its way through sophisticated encryption.

Meanwhile, many of us use e-mail for some very personal (but not dangerous) communications that we would prefer government bureaucrats not to be reading. Which is why it makes sense to demand that the Justice Deparment divulge far more than it has about its use of Carnivore and the information it gets from it that way we can come to our own conclusions about whether our loss of privacy is worthwhile.

School board micromanagement

The following editorial appeared Feb. 21 in The Hays (Kan.) Daily News:

Some high school students in eastern Kansas practicing the old art of cheating have drawn statewide and even national attention.

The controversy at Piper High School erupted because the school board overruled the teacher who gave the students Fs on a project they allegedly plagiarized. The teacher subsequently resigned. ...

It started in December, when Piper High School teacher Christine Pelton discovered that 28 of her 118 sophomores had swiped sections of their botany projects from the Internet. ...

Pelton is to be commended for taking a stand on cheating and focusing national attention on this issue. ...

The Internet offers a place where students can download a research paper on virtually any subject. ...

Another positive outcome of this should be a renewed attention on plagiarism specifically. Some Piper parents honestly believed their children did not cheat or did so only unintentionally, perhaps out of some confusion over how much research material should be rewritten to count as original writing. ...

And finally, through the missteps of the Piper School Board, maybe other school board members will understand what it does to a teacher's authority in the classroom when they micromanage their decisions.

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