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FBI's 'Carnivore' spurs new e-mail cloaking programs

(CNN) -- As the debate rages over the FBI's e-mail surveillance system known as "Carnivore," people are looking for new ways to protect the privacy of their online messages. A few computer companies are offering solutions, but will they work and will people use them?

The FBI's decision to outfit Internet Service Providers with hidden "black boxes" to monitor the e-mail of criminal suspects has raised serious concerns among ISPs and electronic privacy advocates.

In response, NetworkICE last week released a free, open source code alternative to the secret FBI program called Altivore, which the computer security company said would allow ISPs a less restrictive alternative than federal oversight.

Electronic freedom advocates have suggested that non-Carnivore clones would satisfy the FBI, as long ISPs could provide the desired information about criminal suspects.


Some Internet security computers have begun marketing what they call innovative software that can circumvent programs like Carnivore.

AbsoluteFuture Inc. promises businesses the ability to send e-mail "without leaving a data trace anywhere. E-mails ... self-destruct and vanish without a trace from their hard drives and the hard drives of their recipients," said Anne Taylor, a spokeswoman for the company.

Tony McNamara, chief technology officer of the company, said its product SafeMessage counteracts Carnivore by eliminating readable headers from e-mail messages. The FBI program cannot detect the e-mail without them, he said.

Other e-mail security products have stepped up marketing in the wake of the Carnivore debate as well.

"I know that one company has taken out a lot of advertisements," said Robert Graham, chief technology officer NetworkICE and the creator of Altivore.

Graham said he made Altivore not to sell but to make two points: that ISPs should regulate themselves and that the Carnivore program is technologically unremarkable.

Similarly, he said any new product that promises to circumvent Carnivore likely doesn't represent a major advance.

"E-mail cloaking has been around for awhile. There will always be ways that people can evade e-mail detection systems," he said.

Private e-mailers have had access for years to cloaking applications like Pretty Good Privacy, or PGP, an open source code used to encrypt e-mails, or others that use anonymous relays to hide the tracks of e-mail correspondences.

But such features are generally difficult or inconvenient to use, which has discouraged their widespread use, according to Graham.

"I won't be impressed by these programs until people use them," he said.

McNamara said SafeMessage does require the use of a password. And both the sender and receiver must have the software. But, he said the product is easier to use than typical e-mail applications.

McNamara said it was not meant to encourage illegal activity. His company would comply fully with authorities during any investigation.

Using court orders, the FBI controls Carnivore from a remote location to monitor and retrieve e-mail messages of criminal suspects. It has been used in about 25 investigations in the last year, including criminal cases and "national security" cases involving counter-intelligence or counter-terrorism.

The FBI and the Justice Department maintain that strict oversight by the courts would prevent abuses of the system. The pledge has failed to assure electronic privacy activists that only legitimate uses would take place.

Justice Department mum about who will review 'Carnivore'
September 7, 2000
Senate panel examines FBI Internet surveillance system
September 6, 2000
Universities unwilling to review FBI's 'Carnivore' system
September 6, 2000
U.S. Justice Department releases criteria for 'Carnivore' review
August 25, 2000
Employer e-snooping measure nears vote
September 13, 2000

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