Senate panel examines FBI Internet surveillance system
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- FBI officials and privacy advocates squared off Wednesday on Capitol Hill as a Senate panel convened hearings on whether the agency's Internet surveillance system, dubbed "Carnivore," violates privacy rights.
"America's Internet users are legitimately concerned that surfing the Internet is like walking in a big city at night," said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. "The enjoyment is tempered by fears of what's lurking unnoticed in the dark alleys."
With the help of several Internet providers, Carnivore has been used by the FBI to intercept e-mail transmissions of suspected criminals. Assistant FBI Director Donald Kerr, who supervised the development of the Carnivore program, said it has been used to combat international terrorism, credit card fraud, child pornographers, and insider stock trading.
"While the FBI has always, as a first instinct, sought to work cooperatively and closely with computer network service providers, software and equipment manufacturers and many others to fight these crimes, it also became obvious that the FBI needed its own tools to fight this battle," said Kerr.
"As one example, convicted terrorist Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind of the World Trade Center bombing, stored detailed plans to destroy United States airliners on encrypted files on his laptop computer," he said.
FBI: strict guidelines limit potential for abuse
In the past, the FBI relied solely on pen-registers or "trap and trace" wiretaps to produce lists of the telephone numbers of people who placed calls to suspects. Those methods are now applied to the collection of e-mail or IP (Internet Protocol) addresses that are available, provided that investigators are armed with a court order.
Assistant FBI Director Donald Kerr says Carnivore only scans the identifying addresses in the 'to' and 'from' fields of electronic messages, not the content
"These trap and trace orders, though, were not used to identify or record the contents of the communication," said Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the committee.
"I want to hear ... what controls the FBI has in place when Carnivore is used to ensure the program is operated only as authorized by the court order. This keeping in mind the fact that usually the court order isn't going to be designed the way the government wants it to be."
According to Kerr, Carnivore only scans the identifying addresses in the 'to' and 'from' fields but not the content of electronic messages. It also can eliminate large volumes of data from categories of electronic traffic irrelevant to the investigation. In addition, he argued that illegally obtained evidence would only hurt the purpose of using Carnivore.
"FBI employees fully understand that the unlawful interception of the content of private communications will lead to the suppression of any and all tainted evidence and any evidence or fruits derived therefrom. In short, the penalties for violating the electronic surveillance laws are so severe as to dissuade any such unlawful behavior, even if someone were so inclined," he said.
Fears of Big Brother
But civil rights groups and privacy advocates argue that Carnivore could overstep the bounds of privacy rights, and demanded that its coding be released and reviewed in an independent manner.
"The first problem we have with Carnivore is that we don't know really know what it is and how it works. It is something totally controlled by the FBI. It is a black box they have refused to share," said Jim Dempsey of the Center for Democracy and Technology.
The Justice Department is currently accepting bids from U.S. universities that would like to conduct a private review of Carnivore and release the findings.
"The FBI and Justice Department have set out for this independent review so many restrictions and they have put such burdens ... that a lot of good people are backing out," Dempsey said.
Others raised concerns about the potential for abuse, whether court orders are in place or not.
"Although the FBI is legally forbidden from monitoring the communications of citizens who are not targets under Carnivore, the mere knowledge that government agents have the technical capacity to read e-mail messages will greatly increase the uncertainty of innocent citizens," argued Dr. Jeffrey Rosen, a law professor at Georgetown University.
"The costs of social uncertainty about covert monitoring are simply too high to justify Carnivore in its current form."