The bill, which passed by a unanimous voice vote Monday afternoon, would require the attorney general and the FBI director to submit a detailed report on the use of systems including Carnivore and its successor, DCS1000.
The surveillance systems let law enforcement intercept electronic transmissions such as e-mail. The bill requires that the federal government reveal in its report the following, among other points: how many times DCS1000 has been used; how the approval process to use it works; and any unauthorized information that has been gathered by the system.
"It sends a message that Congress is watching and there will be accountability if this system is used," said Richard Diamond, a spokesman for Rep. Dick Armey, R-Texas.
Carnivore-like systems have raised the ire of privacy advocates, civil libertarians and some lawmakers who fear the system may be used to snoop on innocent citizens without their knowledge.
Justice Department officials in both the Clinton and Bush administrations have dodged questions about the use of Carnivore and its successor. Last year, then-Attorney General Janet Reno was criticized for releasing incomplete reports about Carnivore's structure and practices after a privacy group sued, demanding the information.
And last Friday, when a reporter asked Attorney General John Ashcroft about the future of Carnivore during his visit to the Silicon Valley, Ashcroft replied that the FBI does not have a system called Carnivore. He then made a vague comment about how any similar system would use technology that is "privacy neutral."
The legislation passed Monday would not let law enforcement wiggle out of such questions when asked by members of Congress. It specifies that federal officials would have to provide information about Carnivore or any similar systems when asked.
The bill now goes to the Senate for approval. If passed in its present form, federal officials would have to submit reports on Carnivore-like systems within 30 days of the end of the fiscal years 2001 and 2002.