The US Department of Justice (DoJ) has found a compliant, pseudo-academic body to perform its promised review of the Carnivore e-mail sniffer after several prominent universities including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Purdue University, Dartmouth College, the University of Michigan and the Supercomputing Centre at the University of California at San Diego withdrew their applications or simply refused to apply, over objections that DoJ restrictions would compromise their independence.
US Attorney General Janet Reno proudly announced this week that the Illinois Institute of Technology's Research Institute has agreed to perform the review according to the DoJ's tight script. Results are to be submitted by December 2000. The organisation will be paid approximately $175,000 for its 'investigation'.
The DoJ intends to spoon-feed to researchers just what bits of the Carnivore system they may examine, and will not allow them to publish any commentary independent of the requested study, which the Department will also edit prior to public release.
A further caveat allows the DoJ to challenge any member of the review team on 'security clearance' grounds, which could enable them to remove members who are openly critical of the Clinton Administration and Reno DoJ's ongoing festival of increased government surveillance directed against citizens.
The Department's restrictions have led several of America's most respected universities to characterise the programme as an effort to obtain a mere rubber-stamp with a prestigious name.
Privacy watchdog outfit the Electronic Privacy Information Centre (EPIC) sued the FBI in July under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to examine FBI documents related to Carnivore.
EPIC General Counsel David Sobel ridiculed the DoJ study, saying that the Department is "going to retain control over both what the reviewers are given to look at, and even more importantly, control of the final product. In terms of an academic review of a system, that's really an unprecedented lack of independence."
DoJ claims that the security checks are meant only to exclude anyone with a criminal record from working on the project. Editing will be done only to protect trade secrets belonging to Carnivore's software providers, the Department says.
Critics have observed that DoJ was clever to use commercial software in Carnivore, which, according to the FOIA, must be protected from public disclosure. Not a few suspect that the decision to do so was a deliberate calculation meant to impede investigations of the system's inner workings. ®