11 July 2000. Thanks to Anonymous.
Source: US national newspaper, July 11, 2000, pp. A3, A6.

FBI's Wiretaps To Scan E-Mail Spark Concern


WASHINGTON -- The Federal Bureau of Investigation is using a superfast system called Carnivore to covertly search e-mails for messages from criminal suspects.

Essentially a personal computer 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 ability 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 to Carnivore are few, and judges' rulings remain sealed because of the secretive nature of the investigations.

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 matters.

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 system.

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

"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 said.

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 case."

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.


SUBJECT: The FBI's e-mail tapping system, Carnivore.
To: The computer industry

1. The FBI installs one of its off-the-shelf PCs at the Internet service provider of the surveillance target.

2. The PC checks e-mails passing through the ISP for information that indicates whether an e-mail is going to or from the target.

3. If it is, the PC copies the full text of the e-mail to the PC's removable hard drive, which an FBI agent collects daily.

4. While it does analyze the destination and sender of other e-mails, Carnivore does not retrieve their full text.

5. Once the surveillance ends (average 45 days), an FBI agent gathers the computer from the ISP.

Journal Link: Neil King discusses the FBI's Internet-tapping system on "Morningline" on MSNBC at 10:30 a.m. EDT.

Journal Link: Read an issue briefing and join a discussion about privacy and the Internet in the online Journal at WSJ.com.