WATPA: FW: FBI's system to covertly search e-mail raises privacy,legal issues

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From: Norman J. Jacknis (norm@jacknis.com)
Date: Sat Jul 15 2000 - 20:26:28 EDT


FBI's system to covertly search e-mail raises privacy, legal issues

By Neil King Jr. and Ted Bridis

WASHINGTON, July 11 - The U.S. Federal Bureau of
Investigation is using a superfast system called Carnivore
to covertly search e-mails for messages from criminal
stuffed with specialized software, Carnivore
represents a new twist in the federal
government's fight to sustain its snooping
powers in the Internet age. But in employing
the system, which can scan millions of
e-mails a second, the FBI has upset privacy
advocates and some in the computer industry.
Experts say the system opens a thicket of
unresolved legal issues and privacy concerns.

The FBI developed the Internet
wiretapping system at a special agency lab at
Quantico, Va., and dubbed it Carnivore for
its ability to get to "the meat" of what
would otherwise be an enormous quantity of
data. FBI technicians unveiled the system to
a roomful of astonished industry specialists
here two weeks ago in order to steer efforts
to develop standardized ways of complying
with federal wiretaps. Federal investigators
say they have used Carnivore in fewer than
100 criminal cases since its launch early
last year.

Word of the Carnivore system has
disturbed many in the Internet industry
because, when deployed, it must be hooked
directly into Internet service providers'
computer networks. That would give the
government, at least theoretically, the
to eavesdrop on all customers' digital
communications, from e-mail to online
banking and Web surfing.

The system also troubles some Internet
service providers, who are loath to see
outside software plugged into their systems.
In many cases, the FBI keeps the secret
Carnivore computer system in a locked cage
on the provider's premises, with agents
making daily visits to retrieve the data
captured from the provider's network. But
legal challenges to the use of Carnivore are
few, and judges' rulings remain sealed
because of the secretive nature of the

Internet wiretaps are conducted only
under state or federal judicial order, and
occur relatively infrequently. The huge
majority of wiretaps continue to be the
traditional telephone variety, though U.S.
officials say the use of Internet
eavesdropping is growing as everyone from
drug dealers to potential terrorists begins to
conduct business over the Web.

The FBI defends Carnivore as more precise
than Internet wiretap methods used in the past.
The bureau says the system allows
investigators to tailor an intercept operation
so they can pluck only the digital traffic of
one person from among the stream of millions
of other messages. An earlier version, aptly
code-named Omnivore, could suck in as
much as to six gigabytes of data every hour,
but in a less discriminating fashion.

Still, critics contend that Carnivore
is open to abuse. Mark Rasch, a former federal
computer-crimes prosecutor, said the nature
of the surveillance by Carnivore raises
important privacy questions, since it analyzes
part of every snippet of data traffic that
flows past, if only to determine whether to record
it for police.

"It's the electronic equivalent of
listening to everybody's phone calls to see if
it's the phone call you should be monitoring,"
Mr. Rasch said. "You develop a tremendous
amount of information."

Others say the technology dramatizes
how far the nation's laws are lagging behind
the technological revolution. "This is a
clever way to use old telephone-era statutes
to meet new challenges, but clearly there is
too much latitude in the current law," said
Stewart Baker, a lawyer specializing in
telecommunications and Internet regulatory

Robert Corn-Revere, of the Hogan &
Hartson law firm here, represented an
unidentified Internet service provider in one
of the few legal fights against Carnivore. He
said his client worried that the FBI would
have access to all the e-mail traffic on its
system, raising dire privacy and security
concerns. A federal magistrate ruled against
the company early this year, leaving it no
option but to allow the FBI access to its

"This is an area in desperate need of
clarification from Congress," said Mr.

"Once the software is applied to the
ISP, there's no check on the system," said Rep.
Bob Barr (R., Ga.), who sits on a House
judiciary subcommittee for constitutional
affairs. "If there's one word I would use to
describe this, it would be 'frightening."'
Marcus Thomas, chief of the FBI's
Cyber Technology Section at Quantico, said
Carnivore represents the bureau's effort to
keep abreast of rapid changes in Internet
communications while still meeting the rigid
demands of federal wiretapping statutes.
"This is just a very specialized sniffer," he

He also noted that criminal and civil
penalties prohibit the bureau from placing
unauthorized wiretaps, and any information
gleaned in those types of criminal cases
would be thrown out of court. Typical
Internet wiretaps last around 45 days, after
which the FBI removes the equipment. Mr.
Thomas said the bureau usually has as many
as 20 Carnivore systems on hand, "just in

FBI experts acknowledge that
Carnivore's monitoring can be stymied with
computer data such as e-mail that is
scrambled using powerful encryption
technology. Those messages still can be
captured, but law officers trying to read the
contents are "at the mercy of how well it was
encrypted," Mr. Thomas said.

Most of the criminal cases where the
FBI used Carnivore in the past 18 months focused
on what the bureau calls "infrastructure
protection," or the hunt for hackers, though
it also was used in counterterrorism and some
drug-trafficking cases.

Copyright 2000 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
All Rights Reserved.


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