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Judge sets FBI e-mail scanning disclosure


WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- A federal judge ordered the FBI Wednesday to set a timetable for responding to a privacy group's request for details of "Carnivore," a tool designed to capture e-mail messages in a criminal investigation.

U.S. District Judge James Robertson gave the FBI 10 working days to say when it would start rolling out records under "expedited" Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) processing.

David Sobel, general counsel of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, or EPIC, hailed the order as a "very good result." He said it indicated the court planned to supervise the FBI's production of documents.


In an application to the court, EPIC had accused the FBI and the U.S. Justice Department of breaching the law by failing to act on a request for fast-track processing of its FOIA query about the snooping system.

But at the opening of the hearing, Sobel said he had received a fax 90 minutes earlier in which the FBI and Justice Department granted the "expedited" treatment at issue.

In so doing, assistant U.S. Attorney Lisa Barsoomian told the court the FBI planned to make the documents available "as soon as practicable."

Robertson, responding to a request from EPIC, said he would consider 10 days a reasonable definition of what was "practicable" in the matter. He ordered the FBI to let him know by then its timetable for starting to meet the FOIA request.

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 and the American Civil Liberties Union, fearful that its use may violate Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure, want the FBI to spell out how it works.

Attorney General Janet Reno said last week that technical specifications of the system would be disclosed to a "group of experts." Sobel has argued that there is 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 Wednesday before the judge granted an emergency hearing on the matter.

EPIC filed its initial FOIA request on July 12. Six days later it asked the Justice Department to expedite the pending query on the grounds 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." 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 may 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.

Judge orders emergency hearing on FBI's Carnivore
August 2, 2000
Privacy group asks judge to release details of e-mail spy system
August 2, 2000
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

Federal Bureau of Investigation
ACLU: American Civil Liberties Union

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