A Big Brother You Might Want To Watch

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Despite the co-opting of the term "big brother" for voluntary (and boring) TV exhibitionism, it still takes the feds to do something genuinely Orwellian.

"Carnivore" is the name of a little-black-box-like FBI device that, when hooked into an Internet service provider, can capture and read e-mails from suspects in criminal investigations — or your grandmother. What was conceived (we hope) as a way to catch criminals can also be way for the government to keep tabs on anyone who writes an e-mail that catches the eye of the device's computerized filters.

Who'll save us from Big Brother's watchful eye? The webheads, of course. EarthLink, one of the nation's largest ISPs, is refusing to let the FBI install the device on their servers. Sure, there are other reasons — EarthLink says that the last time they let the FBI snoop on a suspect, Carnivore broke the system — but it's the privacy issue that is lighting the PR fire. EarthLink says its worried that the device, which scans Internet traffic passively and indiscriminately, will scare off its customers. Nightly newscasts, certainly, have had a field day with scary teasers, and Janet Reno is putting the system under review, promising to ensure that the FBI uses Carnivore in "a consistent and balanced way."

Of course, when Reno says she didn't hear about Carnivore until last week, and FBI cyber-tech agents say they briefed her top aides a year ago, before the program began, it's understandable if our trust in the government's oversight mechanisms is taking a bit of a beating.