Monday, February 23, 2004

The 'Magic Lantern' and the Fed's Eagerness to Employ?

U.S. Government boosts online surveillance activity

By Dan Verton - Computer World


Significant changes are under way in the federal government's war on terrorism, including unprecedented electronic surveillance measures designed to uncover terrorist cells in the U.S.

FBI officials are reportedly developing a combination computer worm/Trojan horse called "Magic Lantern" that's designed to capture keystrokes on a target computer and encryption keys used to conceal data.

The increased focus on domestic surveillance and cyberintelligence tools comes as the war on terrorism enters a new phase designed to ferret out sleeper cells-small groups that live legally in the U.S. for years poised to conduct terrorist attacks. The Justice Department has called increased electronic surveillance of suspected terrorists a must-have capability. But some experts worry that the new focus may not produce desired results and that it poses a threat to privacy and other civil liberties.

Spy Tools Could Be Useful

"To the degree there are any al Qaeda sleeper cells here, they do use the Internet to communicate frequently," said Vince Cannistraro, former director of counterintelligence at the CIA. "They also encrypt their messages. So surveillance tools are potentially useful if the FBI knows what it is looking for and knows where to look. That, of course, is a big if."

"I am very concerned about civil liberties at this point and certainly about increased penetration of online activities," said Steve Kobrin, a professor of multinational management and an online privacy expert at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. "The odds that our privacy is being invaded by the U.S. [government] have certainly gone up, and the odds that we will ever know about it have gone down."

Phil Zimmermann, inventor of Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) encryption software, said that although there was an initial push by some in Congress and the White House to clamp down on encryption exports in the aftermath of September 11, he doesn't foresee a change in U.S. policy on that front.

Zimmermann also said the government won't insert back doors in commercial software. "We've already won this battle," he said.

But concerns about other measures linger.

"The availability of new surveillance technologies and the government's eagerness to employ them certainly do pose a challenge to traditional civil liberties," said Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington. "There is some danger that the surveillance impulse will take on a life of its own, producing an unwholesome mutation of our political system."

Federal Online Surveillance at CNN.com

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