Ashcroft's privacy quest
- By Bryant Jordan
- Feb 18, 2001
While John Ashcroft's supporters see him as an attorney general who will take a bite out of crime, it's not as clear that the Justice Department's new leader will automatically throw his support behind agency surveillance programs that run counter to privacy issues he has raised in the past.
Those programs include the FBI's just-renamed e-mail bugging system called Digital Collection System 1000 — or DCS1000, formerly Carnivore — and a planned "threat assessment tool" for mining and analyzing data from public and commercial databases.
Ashcroft is not yet talking on those issues, and the Justice Department would not respond to questions put to its new boss. So how the country's top cop will come down on DCS1000 and other electronic surveillance initiatives is anybody's guess — including the FBI's.
"We don't know what his position supports," FBI spokesman Paul Bresson said.
But based on Ashcroft's past statements and actions, his support for programs advocated by his predecessor, Janet Reno, is by no means assured.
"The FBI wants access to decode, digest and discuss financial transactions, personal e-mail and proprietary information sent abroad — all in the name of national security," Ashcroft stated in an article he penned while chairman of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Consumer Affairs, Foreign Commerce and Tourism in 1997. At the time, Ashcroft was a leader in the fight to keep the keys to encryption programs manufactured by private U.S. companies out of the hands of the government.
He was also quick to accuse the Clinton administration of electronically encroaching on people's privacy.
"The administration's interest in all e-mail is a wholly unhealthy precedent, especially given [its] track record on FBI files and [Internal Revenue Service] snooping," he wrote.
For advocates of privacy, especially in the electronic arena, Ashcroft comes across as a champion.
Wayne Madsen, a fellow with the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C., said EPIC worked with Ashcroft's subcommittee during the debate over encryption. And to hear Ashcroft talk then, using phrases such as "arrogant government," said Madsen, "he sounded like a Libertarian."
Not only did Ashcroft fight the FBI and the Justice Department on proposed encryption plans, he withdrew his support from legislation that would have created an FBI "net center" where U.S. intelligence organizations — including the National Security Agency — would assist federal, state and local law enforcement agencies in finding ways to crack encryption codes, Madsen said. In the end, plans for the center were dropped, he said.
Bruce Heiman, executive director of Americans for Computer Privacy, called Ashcroft "a strong defender of the privacy rights of Americans.
"He believes that we need to carefully protect electronic information from unwarranted government access," Heiman said. "I think he sort of recognizes the tremendous potential for technology to assist law enforcement in [fighting] crimes, but he also understands the serious risks that present themselves to the privacy rights of law-abiding citizens."
Not everyone is convinced. The American Civil Liberties Union says Ashcroft has a mixed record on privacy, and that as a senator, he voted for legislation permitting police to more easily get court orders for "roving" wiretaps — that is, on phones that a suspect might use and not those a suspect is known to use.
Even Madsen said there is no guarantee Ashcroft will hold to his previously stated views on e-privacy. "I think the litmus test will be if he defends or dramatically curtails the use of" DCS1000, he said.
Carnivore Goes wonk
The FBI has given Carnivore, its controversial e-mail surveillance system, a kinder, gentler and techier name.
In a move that both supporters and critics of the system saw coming for some time, the meat-eating moniker has been retired in favor of Digital Collection System 1000 — or DCS1000, for short.
"We kind of thought the change was inevitable. The name was unpopular, and the technology is going to evolve anyway," FBI spokesman Paul Bresson said.
But "evolve" does not mean pulling any of the system's teeth. Bresson said the surveillance system will go through upgrades and also incorporate some of the recommendations of the IIT Research Institute.
IIT's review, conducted on behalf of the FBI late last year, recommended safeguards to ensure no accidental interception of communications occurs without a court order, and a log-in system be installed to identify system users.