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Judge orders emergency hearing on FBI's Carnivore

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- A federal judge ordered an emergency hearing Wednesday on a privacy rights group's request for the immediate release of details on Carnivore, the Federal Bureau of Investigation's e-mail surveillance tool.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), in its application to the judge, accused the FBI and the Justice Department of breaching the law by failing to act on a request for fast-track processing of a Freedom of Information Act query about the snooping system.

In July the FBI told Congress Carnivore is designed to intercept data from the electronic mail of a criminal suspect by monitoring traffic at an Internet service provider. EPIC wants the FBI to disclose how it works.

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U.S. District Judge James Robinson set the hearing for 3:30 p.m. at the federal courthouse in Washington.

Attorney General Janet Reno said last week that technical specifications of the system will be disclosed to a "group of experts."

In an open letter, 27 House Republicans and one Democrat urged Reno last week to suspend use of Carnivore until the privacy issues it raised were resolved.

"People should feel secure that the federal government is not reading their e-mail, no matter how worthy the objective," House Republican leader Rep. Dick Armey of Texas and co-signers wrote.

The FBI had no immediate comment on the emergency hearing.

The Justice Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the move to compel release of "all records" on Carnivore. The American Civil Liberties has also filed a FOIA request for details on Carnivore, including the software code.

The FBI has likened the system to a traditional wiretap in that both require a court finding of probable cause before surveillance may be undertaken.

At least three bills have been introduced in Congress that would clarify legal standards applying to interception of e-mail.

David Sobel, general counsel of the Washington-based privacy center known by its acronym EPIC, said there was no substitute for a full and open public review of the Carnivore system.

"Unless the public gets access to relevant information, we will not have a fully informed debate on these issues," he said in a telephone interview.

EPIC filed its initial FOIA request July 12. Six days later it asked the Justice Department to expedite the pending query on the ground that it had become a matter of exceptional news media concern raising questions about "the government's integrity which affect public confidence" -- one of the legal standards that qualifies a request for "expedited processing."

Despite a 10-day statutory time limit to answer requests for accelerated processing, Sobel said the Justice Department failed to respond to EPIC's request. The 10 days ran out Friday, he said.

"If there was ever a request that qualified for expedited treatment, this is it," Sobel added.

Although Carnivore reportedly "sniffs" or scans all traffic at an Internet Service Provider once it is installed by court order, the FBI says only the data or messages relevant to a criminal investigation get stored and reviewed.

All other information it sifts through is discarded, Donald Kerr, director of the FBI lab that developed Carnivore, told Congress at a July 24 hearing.

Some lawmakers suggested the tool might infringe on the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, which protects Americans from unreasonable search and seizure.

Copyright 2000 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.



RELATED STORIES:
U.S. plays down fears over Internet wiretap system
July 24, 2000
Critics bash U.S. plan for surveillance standards
July 21, 2000
FBI says Carnivore will not devour privacy
July 21, 2000
ACLU: Block FBI e-snoops
July 17, 2000

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