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U.S. plays down fears over Internet wiretap system


July 24, 2000
Web posted at: 5:22 p.m. EDT (2122 GMT)

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- U.S. officials on Monday sought to calm concerns about a new FBI Internet-wiretapping system called Carnivore, describing it as a "small-scale device" and insisting that fears of broad online surveillance were overblown.

Carnivore allows U.S. law enforcement agencies to find and follow the e-mails of a criminal suspect among the flood of other data passing through an Internet service provider.

Lawmakers and privacy advocates have expressed concerns the program may cast too wide a net, trawling through the e-mails of the innocent in order to come up with the communications of the target of an investigation.

FBI officials, however, told a House of Representatives Judiciary subcommittee hearing the system had a far more narrow focus and could only be used, like more familiar telephone intercepts, under the specific terms of a court order.

Carnivore "does not search through the contents of every message and collect those that contain key words like 'bomb' and 'drugs'," FBI Assistant Director Donald Kerr said.

"It selects messages based on criteria expressly set out in the court order, for example messages transmitted to or from a particular account or to or from a particular user."

U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno said two weeks ago she would review the system to determine whether it might infringe on privacy rights, but Justice Department officials told the hearing on Monday it would not do so.

"Carnivore is simply an investigative tool that is used online only under narrowly defined circumstances, and only when authorized by law, to meet our responsibilities to the public," said Deputy Assistant Attorney General Kevin DiGregory.

The system "permits law enforcement strictly to comply with court orders, strongly to protect privacy, and effectively to enforce the law to protect the public interest," he added.

Critics remained skeptical. The American Civil Liberties Union has asked for a look at the program's source code so it could evaluate the software's true capabilities.

"Carnivore is roughly equivalent to a wiretap capable of accessing the contents of the conversations of all of a phone company's customers, with only the 'assurance' that the FBI will record only the conversations of the specified target," ACLU Associate Director Barry Steinhardt said.

And some Internet service providers dispute whether the system is necessary at all, saying they can already produce the e-mails of criminal suspects if ordered to do so by a court.

"Reviewing all data to find some data is neither the most efficient nor the least intrusive method of electronic surveillance," said Peter Sachs, president of Connecticut service provider ICONN, LLC. "That is especially true when all ISPs ... can easily supply the FBI with all of the information it needs in a timely, accurate and efficient manner."

Lawmakers on the subcommittee said they would keep an open mind on the issue, but several signalled concerns over the implications of the new technology.

"We should be sensitive to any potential for abuse," said Florida Representative Charles Canady, the panel's chairman. "Even a system designed with the best of intentions to legally carry out essential law enforcement functions may be a cause for concern if its use is not properly monitored."

Michigan Representative John Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the full Judiciary Committee, said Congress needed to ensure Carnivore did not "bite off more than it can chew."

"Should we now be comfortable with a 'trust us, we're the government approach?" he said. "I don't think anybody on this committee shares that view."

Copyright 2000 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.

FBI says Carnivore will not devour privacy
July 21, 2000
ACLU: Block FBI e-snoops
July 17, 2000
Local law officers to link up to FBI crime data
July 27, 1999
FBI turns on new crime-fighting system
July 19, 1999
FBI on offensive in 'cyber war,' raiding hackers' homes
June 24, 1999

Federal Bureau of Investigation
 • The Carnivore Diagnostic tool
ACLU: American Civil Liberties Union

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