Thursday, September 22, 2005

S spy case shows e-mail unsafe from prying eyes


Are Yahoo Mail and Hotmail safe from prying eyes?

Not if those eyes belong to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Former police officer Michael Ray Aquino and FBI analyst Leandro Aragoncillo learned this lesson when they were arrested and charged with sending classified information by e-mail to three unnamed politicians in the Philippines.

Part of the evidence against Aquino and Aragoncillo was found in e-mail messages that they had sent to politicians in the Philippines, news reports said last week.

Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago, for example, noted that an affidavit by FBI agent Edward Finnegan noted that Aragoncillo communicated with one of the “national-level” politicians using the free Web-based e-mail service Hotmail.

Finnegan said that in one Hotmail message, Aragoncillo had suggested to “the political contender” to take over the government if the Constitution would allow it.

Santiago also said Finnegan’s affidavit showed that the national official had apparently undergone training in espionage. In one e-mail to Aragoncillo, the official said: “If there are confidential matters that you wish to share, don’t hesitate because I was fully trained in this endeavor.”

Nor does the use of a false e-mail name or alias seem to offer much protection. New reports indicate Aragoncillo, in fact, had communicated with a congressman using at least six different e-mail addresses.

The FBI has long had the capability to monitor e-mail and online activities, developing the controversial “sniffer” program Carnivore. Carnivore was abandoned in favor of commercially available eavesdropping software in January 2005.

Law enforcement agencies in the United States can also gain access to Internet files under the Patriot Act, which allows Internet service providers to give e-mail messages and personal data to federal law enforcement without a warrant or notifying the person in question.

This provision and other parts of the Patriot Act, passed speedily in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the Twin Towers in New York, were questioned by civil liberties advocates who said they violate an individual’s right to privacy.

The administration of US President George Bush has been pushing for the renewal of the act, which expires in December. Civil liberties advocates, on the other hand, are working against its renewal. Chin Wong, MLA STANDARD

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