- First it was Echelon' the global eavesdropping system
Uncle Sam and John Bull have been using to spy on satellite-transmitted
phone calls, e-mails and fax messages. Now itís Carnivore, the
FBIís newest electronic snooping device that can read your e-mail
right off your mail server.
- Capable of scanning millions of e-mails a second, Carnivore
can easily be used to monitor everybodyís e-mail messages and transactions,
including banking and Internet commerce. If they want to, the feds can
find out what books youíre buying online, what kind of banking transactions
you conduct - in short, everything you do when you go online and send e-mail,
whether private or commercial.
- The FBI has been quietly monitoring e-mail for about
a year. Two weeks ago the feds went public and explained the high-tech
snooping operation to what the Wall Street Journal called "a roomful
of astonished industry specialists."
- According to the bureau, theyíve used Carnivore
- so called because it can digest the "meat" of the information
they're looking for - in less than 100 cases, in most cases to locate hackers
but also to track terrorist and narcotics activities.
- But there is nothing to stop Carnivore from making a
meal of your e-mail messages and transactions if they decide thatís
what they want to do and can get a judge to issue a court order allowing
them to tap your e-mail as they would your phones.
- Thatís scant comfort considering the underhanded
means the feds employed to get court orders to raid the Branch Davidian
compound, or to win a judgeís permission to stage what amounted
to an illegal armed raid on Elian Gonzalezís Miami home.
- Carnivore is nothing but a store-bought personal computer
with special software that the FBI installs in the offices of Internet
service providers (ISPs).
- The computer is kept in a locked cage for about a month
and a half. Every day an agent comes by and retrieves the previous dayís
e-mail sent to or by someone suspected of a crime.
- But critics say that Carnivore, like some ravening beast,
is simply too hungry to be trusted - that it gives the feds far too much
access to too much private information.
- "This is more of a vacuum cleaner-type approach
- it apparently rifles through everything," David Sobel, general counsel
for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, told Fox News.
- "It's potentially much more invasive than telephone
- Carnivore could conceivably monitor all the e-mail that
moves through an ISP - not merely messages sent to or from the subject
allegedly being monitored. Critics compare it to eavesdropping on all the
phones in a neighborhood simply to zero in on just one phone.
- Disturbingly, the FBI has prevailed in challenges against
forcing ISPs to allow Carnivore to be installed in their offices. According
to the Wall Street Journal, one unidentified ISP put up a legal fight against
Carnivore early this year and lost.
- The FBI defends Carnivore, insisting it is used selectively
and monitors only the e-mail of the subject. They say that messages belonging
to those not being probed, even if criminal, would not be admissible in
- "The volume of e-mail in a location is generally
fairly small and being managed by a small number of e-mail servers on a
fairly low-speed network," said Marcus Thomas, chief of the FBI's
cyber technology section.
- "The system is not unlike 'sniffers' used within
the networks every day."
- That fails to satisfy critics such as Sobel. He says
Carnivore is similar to Russia's surveillance system, called "SORM,"
which all Russian ISPs are forced to install to allow the government to
spy on whomever it chooses.
- Itís also similar, he says, to the notorious Echelon'
the National Security Agencyís global eavesdropping system, which
intercepts telecommunications transmissions from around the world and looks
for keywords that could indicate illegal activity.
- "Carnivore is really the latest indication of a
very aggressive stance that the bureau is taking in collecting as much
information as technically possible," Sobel said.
- FBI spokesman Paul Bresson insists that law-abiding citizens
have nothing to fear from Carnivore. "Anytime we develop a system,
we're basically balancing the interests of national security against that
of the privacy of the public," he said.
- "This issue's always going to come up. We're always
going to get questions. We understand that."
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