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FBI Wins Net Pioneer as Ally

The Federal Bureau of Investigation scored a major coup in its defense of its Carnivore Net surveillance system when it secured Internet pioneer Vinton Cerf as an ally late Wednesday.

Carnivore is a software system the FBI can use to monitor Internet traffic and capture e-mail and other electronic communications from a criminal suspect -- when such action is justified.

Cerf, who co-invented some Internet technology in 1973, told the Senate committee Wednesday that he felt the FBI uses Carnivore without violating the privacy of Internet users.

Cerf, a senior vice president at WorldCom Inc., also said he opposes efforts by some civil-liberties groups and security experts to force the FBI to disclose the blueprints for Carnivore.

In what is to some degree an echo of anti-Big Brother sentiments, critics contend the system makes it easy to capture e-mail from innocent citizens who use the same Internet service provider as those under surveillance.

In his statement to the Senate, the Center for Democracy and Technology Senior Staff Counsel James X. Dempsey said a "black box controlled by the FBI and inserted into the network of an Internet service provider to search through thousands or millions of messages, including those of innocent people, Carnivore is not the right solution."

Among Dempsey's arguments, was that such a clandestine technique was not consistent with federal electronic surveillance and wiretap laws.

True to the nature of his knowledge, Cerf scripted a detailed account of how the Internet works for the Senate Wednesday. He explained that the information was contained in well-directed, multi-layered packets en route to concluding that the system is highly effective as long as it is not abused.

Cerf, who agreed to speak on the FBI's behalf after being treated to a private demonstration of Carnivore in Quantico, Va. two weeks ago, wrote in his testimony:

"The Carnivore system is a computer that tries to observe the traffic (Internet packets) flowing on a circuit within the Internet. Its objective is to try to find only those packets that may be relevant to an ongoing investigation and to ignore others (both for legal reasons and simply to deal with the potentially enormous flow of traffic that may require filtering)."

When reached at his office at CDT Thursday, Dempsey refused to comment, suggesting that the reporter use the first three pages of his testimony to the Senate for his side of the story.

Cerf talked about Carnivore Thursday on InternetNewsradio.com, an affiliate of InternetNews.com.

"I don't think it's the evil monster machine that most people make it out to be," Cerf said. "In fact, it's an enhancement of a very typical type of protocol analyzer, which is something you get off the shelf. I am not trying to argue that this thing is idiot-proof in the sense that no one can abuse it, but I think I am saying they put in as much controls as can be used. If properly used it only captures the data that it should be capturing."

Many critics, Dempsey in the forefront, also have argued that control of Carnivore be ceded to Internet service providers -- not the government. This way, the FBI would not be in a position to abuse the use of Carnivore and ISPs could serve as an impartial aid to investigators of crime.

This notion horrifies Cerf.

"Having this capability officially sanctioned in the hands of the ISP, folks, is a little disturbing especially if the ideal is that you leave the machine there and it's there all of the time and they're the ones who set it up," Cerf said Thursday. "I don't fully understand why one would have to engage the