News

June 18, 2003 - Updated on January 20, 2016

United States


The United States was where the Internet started but it was also where electronic surveillance of it began. The 11 September attacks have only strengthened the government's determination to monitor the flow of information on the Internet.
More than half of all Americans are online and most have high-speed connections. The Internet is a vital means of communication in the United States. However, the 11 September 2001 attacks and the terrorists' presumed use of it to contact each other in preparing that operation abruptly changed the government's attitude to the Internet. Just a few hours after the attacks, FBI agents went to the head offices of the country's main ISPs, including Hotmail, AOL and Earthlink, to get details of possible e-mail messages between the terrorists. The online magazine Wired said FBI agents also tried to install the Carnivore surveillance system (since renamed DCS 1000) on the ISPs. It said they turned up at ISP offices with the software and offered to pay for installation and operation. They reportedly demanded and obtained material from certain e-mail accounts, most of whose names included the word "Allah." All major US-based ISPs are thought to have complied fully with the FBI demands. Easing the rules Carnivore, designed by the FBI, can record and store all messages sent or received by an ISP's customers, using word filters that make no distinction between different kinds of messages, thus exceeding the bounds of normal surveillance. US civil liberties campaigners fought Carnivore, which had never been used before without a court order. However, the Combating Terrorism Act, passed urgently by the Senate on 13 September, after 30 minutes of debate just two days after the attacks, allowed intelligence services to use it without having to seek such approval. A prosecutor can now order electronic surveillance of someone for 48 hours without getting a judge's permission. Monitoring Internet data was legalised on 24 October 2001 when the US House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed the "USA Patriot Act" (Provide Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism). It confirmed the authority already given to the FBI to install Carnivore on an ISP's equipment to monitor e-mail messages and store records of Internet activity by people suspected of being in contact with a foreign power. This requires only the permission of a special secret court. The Act also expands the kind of information a prosecutor can ask for from an ISP without a judge's permission and invites ISPs to freely hand over to the authorities data unrelated to content, such as records of websites visited. A new step was taken on 20 November 2002 with Senate approval of the Homeland Security Act, which set up a super-ministry with the job of preventing terrorist attacks. It will eventually have a staff of 170,000 drawn from 22 government departments and bodies. Section 225 of the law allows ISPs to disclose the content of their customers' messages at the request of federal or local officials if, "in good faith" they think this will prevent death or serious injury. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) says this means ISPs will be doing the work of a court. It deplores the fact that disclosure will be on the basis of "good faith" rather than "reasonable belief" as before and says the threats cited can be very general. Section 225 also allows police to record without permission any message sent or received by a "protected computer" (one used in interstate commerce or communications) which is under attack. It also increases to 20 years the penalty for computer crimes that cause serious injury and life imprisonment if they result in death. Encryption in the dock Many US officials have also criticised encryption, which allows Internet users to keep their messages and activity confidential by encoding it with software. Encryption, mainly used by companies to exchange sensitive economic data, has never been banned in the United States. But its export is restricted under the Wassenaar Arrangement, which required inspection of material that could be used for both civil and military purposes. The 11 September attacks have revived the debate between supporters and opponents of encryption. The director of the FBI said in March 2001 that terrorists were using encryption. On 13 September that year, Republican Sen. Judd Gregg proposed a blanket ban on encryption software whose makers had not handed over the decoding key to the government. The authorities noted that plans to hijack 11 US airliners had been found on the laptop computer of the man behind the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993 and that the FBI had needed 10 months to decode the files, most of which were encrypted with the Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) software. PGP's inventor, David Zimmerman, who nearly went to jail in the 1980s for widely distributing his programme, recently defended it in an interview in Futur(e)s magazine. He said the US Congress, courts and media had discussed the issue for the past decade and concluded society had more to gain than lose from powerful encryption. PGP was saving lives all over the world, he said, and was used by human rights organisations everywhere, especially in countries ruled by dictatorships. Encryption software has under attack from the FBI's Magic Lantern programme, an e-mail that can secretly record the keystrokes of an Internet user, so the FBI can see the passwords and codes employed by encryption users. After press reports about it, the FBI denied having such a programme but admitted it was working on one. Against censorship, but in favour of monitoring As well as seeking to monitor the flow of online information to check what is being said and exchanged, the authorities are also trying to use the Internet to put out US propaganda in their war against terrorism. The New York Times reported on 19 February this year that the Defense Department's Office of Strategic Influence (OSI) had proposed planting disinformation in the foreign media, mainly through websites set up and secretly run by the OSI and through e-mails sent to journalists or media offices. The revelation caused an outcry and White House spokesman Ari Fleischer quickly said President Bush knew nothing about the project and had ordered the OSI closed down because, said defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the Pentagon "does not lie to the American people" or to "foreign audiences." The Bush administration could also use the Internet to break the information monopoly under some dictatorships. Two members of the US House of Representatives proposed a law on 2 October 2002 to fight censorship worldwide. The Global Internet Freedom Act would set up a federal Office of Global Internet Freedom to counter jamming and censorship of the Internet by authoritarian regimes and persecution of those who use it. The office would be part of the International Broadcasting Bureau, which runs several radio stations that already combat censorship, such as Radio Free Europe and Radio Free Asia. It would have a $50 million budget for 2003 and 2004. But what is censorship? The Global Internet Freedom Act would have the US take no steps against government censorship aimed at protecting minors. A legal battle pitting several civil liberties groups and public libraries against the Bush administration over the Children's Internet Protection Act is growing. The US supreme court said on 12 November 2002 it would rule on the Act, passed in 2000 and obliging all libraries receiving federal funds for Internet facilities to install anti-pornography filters on their computers. The Act's opponents say it violates the first amendment to the US constitution concerning freedom of expression and also blocks access to other websites as well as pornographic ones. In May 2002, a federal court in Philadelphia said forcing public libraries to install filters was indeed censoring freedom of expression protected by the constitution. The federal government has appealed to the supreme court, saying the filter software was the best available to prevent taxpayers' having to subsidise the spread of obscene websites and material unsuitable for children. Ten per cent of the 143 million Internet users in the US go online at public libraries, 80 per cent of which have received federal funds to set up Internet facilities. An Orwellian future? In early November 2002, the US media reported that the Pentagon had set up an Information Awareness Office to develop technology to trawl Internet navigation records to spot activity such as credit card purchases and airline reservations that might indicate a potential terrorist. The head of this $200 million a year project, John Poindexter, says software will pick out travel in dangerous parts of the world, suspicious e-mail and dubious money transfers. The data will be regularly gathered by intelligence services with the permission of governments and companies. Opponents of the project call it "Orwellian" and several civil liberties organisations say personal information unrelated to terrorism and which is none of the government's business would also be obtained. Marc Rotenberg, head of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), says the authorities would have data in their hands hitherto only obtainable by court order as part of criminal investigations. He deplores the lack of a body to monitor the collection of such information. Poindexter was sentenced to six months in prison in 1990 for lying to the US Congress in the Iran-Contras scandal but the conviction was quashed on grounds that his legal rights were not respected. Links: American Civil Liberties Union The Center for Democracy and Technology The Digital Freedom Network The Electronic Frontier Foundation The Electronic Privacy Information Center Peacefire The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press Basic documents : USA Patriot Act Homeland Security Act Global Internet Freedom Act Information Awareness Office Children's Internet Protection Act About Carnivore fbi.gov epic.org wired.com News for specialists