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FBI may widely monitor computer systems

The Clinton administration drafts a plan to create two broad, FBI-controlled computer monitoring systems designed to protect the nation's key data networks from interlopers.

The Clinton administration has drafted a plan to create two broad, FBI-controlled computer monitoring systems designed to protect the nation's key data networks from interlopers.

The proposal calls for software monitoring of nonmilitary government systems and networks used in the banking, telecommunications, and transportation industries.

The purported goal is to prevent disruption of government and economic activities by foreign interests or terrorists. But critics say the sweeping plan could lead to a surveillance infrastructure with grave potential for misuse.

The stakes are obviously high, as the scope and volume of daily activities conducted over computer networks is mounting. On the one hand, security breakdowns have the potential to disrupt countless U.S. citizens. On the other, many Americans are fearful of privacy violations and heavy-handed government intrusion in an era when technology is advancing faster than laws and ethical norms are being established.

Drafted by officials of the National Security Council, the proposal envisions "thousands" of software programs looking for signs of illegal break-ins and other illicit use. It calls for creating something called the Federal Intrusion Detection Network (Fidnet), which would deposit its data findings with an interagency task force housed by the FBI.

The plan would be put in place by 2003.

"Our concern about an organized cyberattack has escalated dramatically," Jeffrey Hunker, the National Security Council's director of information protection, told the New York Times, which first reported the plan. "We do know of a number of hostile foreign governments that are developing sophisticated and well-organized offensive cyberattack capabilities, and we have good reason to believe that terrorists may be developing similar capabilities."

But some critics are warning that the proposal potentially could threaten the civil liberties of Internet users. James X. Dempsey, a lawyer with the libertarian Center for Democracy and Technology, said that although the report recognizes civil liberties implications, the federal government should allow companies and government bodies to plug security holes in their own computer systems instead of deploying a monitoring network.

Dempsey warned that excessive federal monitoring would cause a backlash among Internet users. "It's the computerized equivalent to door-to-door searches," he said. "And we have always resisted the monitoring of innocent behavior to catch the few bad guys."

Bloomberg contributed to this report.