About half-a-dozen IITRI researchers will conduct the study out of a Lanham, Md.-based research facility. Results from the review, which is scheduled to begin immediately, will be completed by December 2000. IITRI will be paid an estimated $175,000 for its investigation.
The review was authorized to shed light on software developed for the FBI to capture electronic documents deemed relevant to criminal investigations. Dubbed Carnivore, the technology has set off alarm bells among privacy advocates, who have called for a full public accounting of the government's online snooping capabilities.
The DOJ-commissioned study lost some clout after several prominent universities including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) backed out of the application process, saying restrictions placed on the scope of the review took away from its independence.
MIT network manager Jeffrey Schiller said he was concerned that the raw material used in the study could not be published alongside the findings and that the DOJ intends to review and edit the report before it is released to the public.
"That's not our definition of independent," said Schiller. "In essence, the Justice Department is looking to borrow our reputation, and we're not for sale that way."
Purdue University, Dartmouth College, the University of Michigan and the Supercomputing Center at the University of California at San Diego are other universities that have reportedly opted out of the application process.
Nonetheless, Kerry M. Rowe with the IIITRI said he felt confident about the integrity of the study, and that the limitations make sense given the sensitive nature of the study.
"We wouldn't want this in essence to disclose the way the FBI or DOJ does their business, so I'm comfortable with that," said Rowe, IITRI's senior vice president and manager of the advanced technology group.
The Carnivore system is installed by the FBI at Internet service providers. It sifts through millions of email messages, searching for messages sent by people under investigation.
Privacy groups have complained that the public must trust that the FBI is grabbing only certain emails and allowing the rest to travel on their way.
One privacy group, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), sued the FBI in July under the Freedom of Information Act so it could examine Carnivore-related documents.
David Sobel, EPIC's general counsel, called the conditions of the DOJ's study "unreasonably restrictive."
"DOJ 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 being able to edit the final project before it is made public," he said. "In terms of an academic review of a system, that's really an unprecedented lack of independence."
Despite the controversy, 11 organizations submitted proposals to participate in the study, including National Software Testing Laboratory, the University of California at Davis and the Westlake Consulting Group. Attorney General Janet Reno approved the selection of the IITRI late yesterday.
"The review team will have full access to any information they need to perform their review of the Carnivore system," Stephen Colgate, assistant attorney general for administration, said in a statement.