U.S. Agency Proposes Keeping Eye on Internet

NEW YORK -- The U.S. government plans to propose requiring Internet service providers to help build a centralized system to enable broad monitoring of the Internet and, potentially, surveillance of its users.

The proposal is part of a final version of a report, "The National Strategy to Secure Cyberspace," set for release early next year, according to several people who were briefed on the report. It is a component of the effort to increase national security after the Sept. 11 attacks.

The president's Critical Infrastructure Protection Board is preparing the report, which is intended to create public and private cooperation to defend the national computer networks from hazards like viruses and terrorist attacks. Ultimately the report is intended to provide an Internet strategy for the new Department of Homeland Security.

Such a proposal, which would be subject to congressional and regulatory approval, would be a technical challenge because the Internet has thousands of independent service providers, from garage operations to giant corporations like America Online and Microsoft.

The report does not detail specific operational requirements, locations for the centralized system or costs, people who were briefed on the document said.

While the proposal is meant to gauge the overall state of the worldwide network, some officials of Internet companies who have been briefed on the proposal say they worry that such a system could cross the indistinct border between broad monitoring and wiretap.

Stewart Baker, a Washington lawyer who represents some of the nation's largest Internet providers, said, "Internet service providers are concerned about the privacy implications of this as well as liability," since providing access to live feeds of network activity could be interpreted as a wiretap or as the "pen register" and "trap and trace" systems used on phones without a judicial order.

Tiffany Olson, the deputy chief of staff for the president's Critical Infrastructure Protection Board, said the proposal, which includes a national network operations center, was still in flux. She said the proposed methods do not necessarily require gathering data that would allow monitoring at a individual level.

But the need for a large-scale operations center is real, Olson said, because Internet service providers and other online companies can only view the part of the Internet that is under their control.

"We don't have anybody that is able to look at the entire picture," she said. "When something is happening, we don't know it's happening until it's too late."

The new proposal is labeled in the report as an "early-warning center" that the board says is required to offer early detection of Internet-based attacks and defense against viruses and worms.

But Internet service providers argue that its data-monitoring functions could be used to track the activities of individuals using the network.

An official with a major data services company who has been briefed on the government's plans compared the system to Carnivore, the Internet wiretap system used by the FBI, saying: "Am I analogizing this to Carnivore? Absolutely. But in fact, it's 10 times worse. Carnivore was working on much smaller feeds and could not scale. This is looking at the whole Internet."