First, it was complaints by technology companies and privacy groups. Now, an administration plan to protect government computers from attack by hackers and terrorists is running into opposition from congressional Republicans.
Under the proposed Federal Intrusion and Detection Network (FIDNET), a nationwide electronic network would constantly monitor all government computers, using software that searches for patterns of activity that could provide early warning of illegal acts. Upon detection, such patterns would be automatically relayed to a central monitoring site for analysis and response.
Plans for FIDNET have been discussed by the administration since January, when the program was announced. But a draft proposal for the network, produced by the National Security Council, raised a wave of protest after it was leaked to the New York Times last week.
Denizens of the online world, many of whom share a libertarian bent, reacted with anger to the news. "I'm now wondering if a high-level Clinton appointee isn't channeling Heinrich Himmler," wrote one in an electronic message. Later in the week, House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) took up the cause, writing an open letter to the president that argued the plan "raises the Orwellian possibility that unscrupulous government bureaucrats could one day use such a system to read our personal e-mail," and was headlined, "Mr. President, Stay out of My Inbox." Armey sent another letter, expressing similar concerns, to Attorney General Janet Reno.
Armey spokesman Richard Diamond said "It looks bad on the one hand to have the administration opposing strong encryption," which can protect online conversations from snooping, "and then on the other setting up this office where you could have bureaucrats monitoring computer traffic."
Adding to FIDNET's difficulties, Republican members of the House Appropriations Committee last Friday deleted funding for the program from the spending bill for the Commerce, Justice and State departments. But committee spokeswoman Elizabeth Morra said that objections to the program were not related to privacy concerns. "We're living in the caps under the 1997 budget agreement," Morra said, "and there's just no money for new initiatives."
Administration officials pointed out that the system would monitor patterns suggesting intrusion, not individual e-mails or Web searches, and only on government computers. Although the NSC proposal mentions including private computers in the network, such cooperation would be voluntary, NSC spokesman David Leavy said. Most important, the NSC report is still in preliminary stages. "This is a plan that's under review," Leavy said. "We will certainly work with Congress in a bipartisan fashion as we move forward to continue to address this threat."
Mary Culnan, a professor at Georgetown University who served on the presidential commission studying the vulnerability of "critical infrastructures" that led to the FIDNET proposal, said it was "supposed to be a public-private partnership." The FIDNET document, she said, struck her as the government saying "we're just going to do it our way." Culnan added, "There should be a discussion about this before it happens in order to balance the competing interests."