You pick up the phone, you drop a letter in the mail, and you reasonably expect that no one will be listening in or secretly reading your notes.
Think you should be entitled to the same kind of privacy in your communications over the Internet?
Think again. The evidence is growing that governments everywhere regard data transmitted over the Internet -- be it e-mail, files, Web pages or telephone calls -- as fair game for eavesdropping.
At the moment, much attention is being focused on "Carnivore," a system the FBI uses to scan Internet traffic for e-mail associated with criminal suspects.
In congressional hearings, the FBI said the Carnivore system is used infrequently (25 times overall, 16 times so far this year, according to news reports) and only with proper legal authorization. The agency says the system is the Internet version of a telephone wiretap.
All of the usual suspects are being rounded up to justify the need for this Internet-age surveillance: organized criminals, child pornographers, terrorists.
But the reassurances of federal law-enforcement officials aren't enough for civil libertarians, who want to know exactly how Carnivore works. Various organizations are making freedom-of-information requests in an effort to see for themselves how Carnivore does its work.
What worries many is that the Carnivore system would make it easy for the FBI to tap into virtually anyone's e-mail, with or without probable cause. Can we really be certain that the procedures established for using Carnivore will protect the rights of law-abiding citizens?
You have to wonder, given the difficulties that many law-enforcement agencies, particularly the FBI, have had in respecting the rights of citizens.
In the "real world" outside of cyberspace, we have reached a consensus that it's worth letting a few guilty people go free, if that helps protect the rights of the rest of us. So if police seize evidence without a search warrant, the evidence can't be used.
In Carnivore, however, we have a system that sifts through enormous amounts of Internet data searching for certain information using a method that only its creators know. Hardly an approach to inspire confidence.
Nor is Carnivore the only privacy threat prowling the Internet these days. Russia and England are reportedly contemplating Carnivore-like systems for monitoring Internet traffic.
Meanwhile, growing numbers of people, many in Europe, are concerned about reports of a global spy system called Echelon. The system, reportedly led by U.S. intelligence agencies, is said to be able to intercept telephone calls, faxes, e-mail and more.
Small wonder that so many in government want tight controls on the encryption that can scramble telecommunications so they are safe from eavesdropping.
George Orwell famously pegged 1984 as the year in which an all-seeing, all-knowing "Big Brother" would emerge to control the citizenry. That year came and went without much hint of such a massive surveillance system.
But suddenly, it looks as if Orwell was not only right about the forecast but pretty darn close on the timing as well.
Moran's e-mail address is moran(at)courant.com.
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