WASHINGTON - The Federal Bureau of Investigation is seeking to broaden considerably its ability to tap into Internet traffic in its quest to root out terrorists, going beyond even the new measures afforded in anti-terror legislation signed by President Bush Friday, according to lawyers familiar with the FBI's plans.
Stewart Baker, an attorney at the Washington D.C.-based Steptoe & Johnson and a former general consul to National Security Agency, said the FBI has plans to change the architecture of the Internet and route traffic through central servers that it would be able to monitor e-mail more easily.
The plans goes well beyond the Carnivore e-mail-sniffing system which allows the FBI to search for and extract specific e-mails off the Internet and generated so much controversy among privacy advocates and civil libertarians before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"From the work I've been doing, I've seen the efforts the FBI has been making and it suggests that they are going to unveil this in the next few months," Baker said of the plan.
FBI Spokesman Paul Bresson said he was unaware of any development in the e-mail surveillance arena that would require major architectural changes in the Internet, but acknowledged that such a plan is possible.
Any new efforts would "would be in compliance with wiretapping statutes," Bresson said. "We would be remiss if we didn't."
Such a move might have been unthinkable before Sept. 11.
Last year, privacy groups and civil libertarians howled in protest when the FBI trotted out plans to start using the Carnivore system. The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) in Washington was ready to go full rounds with the government in court over Carnivore, and House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, asked Attorney General John Ashcroft to take another look at its constitutionality.
Now, though, the country is asking for more, not less, law enforcement on the Internet, and even those who once complained are coming around.
"I have two minds on this," says Fred Peterson, vice president of government affairs for the Xybernaut Corporation, which manufactures computer technology for military and law enforcement. The past six weeks have left little doubt in most peoples' mind, he said, that new measures must be taken.
"I think that the threat has increased and while (FBI) demands were unreasonable at a time when the threat was less immediate and less fatal - it's just not the same story anymore," he said.
Others are still skeptical, though not as much.
"I don't think (FBI) motives are bad, but I do think they're using people's current state of mind - they're using it to their advantage," said Mikal Condon, staff attorney for EPIC.
The new FBI plans would give the agency a technical backdoor to the networks of Internet service providers like AOL and Earthlink and Web hosting companies, Baker said. It would concentrate Internet traffic in several central locations where e-mail and other web activity could be wiretapped.
Baker said he expects the agency will approach the Internet companies on an individual basis to ask for their help in the endeavor.
But Jim Harper, staff counsel for privacy advocate Privacilla.org said the FBI may have a hard time convincing some companies to redesign the Internet on its behalf. "It's not really surprising, but I would be shocked to see if it gets done," he said. "Restructuring the Internet? I don't think so."
Others say the Internet companies will not put up much of a fight.
Sue Ashdown, executive director of the Washington-based American ISP Association, an Internet company trade group, said most Internet companies aren't healthy enough financially to take on the government in court to protect their subscribers' privacy rights. And no one, she says, wants to appear hostile to law enforcement right now.
"I know there are a lot of members in the association with feelings on both sides," said Ashdown.
"In the current patriotic climate, enterprises of all types will likely play along with the FBI in order to avoid a public relations disaster," said Gene Riccoboni, an Internet attorney with the Stamford, Connecticut-based Grimes & Battersby.