But some privacy advocates are up in arms, and consultant PricewaterhouseCoopers is among a number of companies that have refused to bid on the contract to operate the system.
The US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is in the process of considering bids for an automated surveillance system that will monitor certain public aspects of the web with the aim of finding fraudulent securities-related activities by targeting phrases such as ‘get rich quick!’.
The system will copy online material into a database to be analysed by SEC investigators.
No timetable for implementation of the system has been established, said SEC spokesman Chris Ullman, adding that the Commission already surveys the web manually. An automated system would be more efficient and cheaper than the manual method, he said.
George Getz, a spokesman for US political body the Libertarian Party, said: “This is government spying on the innocent. It’s no different than the police tapping everyone’s phones just because someone might have committed a crime.”
However, Ullman said the system would only monitor public forums such as websites and newsgroups, and would not cover chat rooms or private communications such as email.
“The Commission has a long-standing concern and respect for the First Amendment, and throughout the procurement process we have abided by both the letter and spirit of privacy laws,” said Ullman.
“Throughout the request for proposals there are a number of references to what the rules are and what the limits are on both the Commission and the vendor in terms of what information they can gather and where they can search.”
If the surveillance programme turns up evidence which the SEC feels merits the interception of private emails, the Commission would have to go through the subpoena process like any other agency, said Ullman.
PwC was one of 107 companies that the SEC invited to bid to operate the system, but the consultant chose not to do so because of concerns about privacy and possible violations of constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure.
“It is equivalent of planting a bug,” said Larry Ponemon, one of the partners in charge of privacy issues at PwC.
Ullman said he is not aware of any similar concerns from other companies that were given the opportunity to bid on the project.
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