An FBI surveillance system called "Carnivore", which supposedly was given
its interesting name because it has the ability to get at the "meat" of
suspicious communications, is alarming some members of Congress and large
numbers of privacy advocates. The software is installed on the networks of Internet providers, where it intercepts all communications and records
anything sent to or from the target of an investigation. FBI agents are
visiting Capitol Hill to deflect criticism of the use of the high-tech
An FBI spokesman told the Wall Street Journal that the agency typically has about 20 Carnivore computers on hand to use when conducting Internet
monitoring, but that it is only used in compliance with court orders.
However, many critics point out that theoretically, the software could be
used to intercept the network traffic of all users. If this occurred, even for a brief period of time, it could be construed as a violation of federal privacy laws and even the U.S. Constitution's ban on unreasonable search and seizure.
The FBI is quietly trying to detract from the attention and on Friday they briefed aides from the House of Representatives on the technical details of Carnivore. The computer used during the briefing was reported to be a Windows 2000 based system that had the custom eavesdrop software previously installed.
According to individuals who attended the briefing, the computer is attached to a hub, and all traffic going through the hub is scanned for specific criteria. The data is dumped to an external storage device said to be an Iomega Jazz drive. Then, an assigned FBI agent logs into the Carnivore box via a modem hooked up to a standard phone line, but not via the Internet, to extract the information.
Not all Internet service providers seem to like the idea of the government computer. For instance, Earthlink claims to have an agreement with the FBI to keep the software off their network because of some subscriber disruptions. The FBI has said that automated monitoring is necessary. In 1994, they successfully persuaded Congress to require all telephone companies to make their networks available for snooping. According to annual statistics published by the U.S. federal court system, the bulk of legal wiretaps are used to investigate drug-related crimes. The FBI has also been successful in getting support from the Internet Engineering Task Force for building wiretap capabilities into network protocols.
Many privacy groups are outraged about the use of any type of monitoring
software. With concerns from multiple groups mounting, Attorney General
Janet Reno has ordered an investigation, and a congressional oversight
hearing is scheduled to discuss the matter on July 24th.
The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a freedom of information
request with the FBI asking for materials related to Carnivore including all "letters, correspondence, tape recordings, notes, data, memoranda, email, computer source and object code, technical manuals, (and) technical specifications".
The ACLU said the request for source code is necessary to understand how the software works and if it infringes on privacy rights. The FBI has indicated it views the Carnivore source code as confidential, and appears unlikely to respond to the request before the scheduled hearing.