RealTime IT News

Analyze This: Carnivore is Not an Omnivore

One week after the Federal Bureau of Investigation released some additional information about its Carnivore surveillance system, an independent reviewer said the tool pretty much does what the bureau said it does: monitor e-mail.

Dean of the Illinois Institute of Technology's Chicago-Kent College of Law Henry H. Perritt said Tuesday that Carnivore, which was designed to collect e-mail going to or from a criminal suspect, could be improved, but was not a product that reveals more information than the FBI first claimed. His team said Carnivore used a software filter that constrains the amount of information the FBI can collect.

The FBI unwittingly triggered an outcry from privacy advocates last week when it released documents that some vigorous opponents of Carnivore interpreted as proof that the tool captures additional Internet traffic, which the FBI had summarily denied in previous months. The advocates fear the FBI can access the e-mail of innocent people not under investigation.

Those documents came as a result of a lawsuit filed by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Opponents of the surveillance tool say it's not just a question of the tool being technically sound, which Perritt said seems to be its biggest fault: It's a matter of analyzing the law under which Carnivore is deemed legal and deciding if privacy is appropriately protected.

"The little information that has become public raises serious questions about the privacy implications of this technology," EPIC general counsel David Sobel said this week. "The American public cannot be expected to accept an Internet snooping system that is veiled in secrecy."

Privacy advocates have accused the independent team of being government insiders as at least one member has worked for the Department of Justice. Perritt himself advised President Clinton's transition team on information policy and performed other tasks for the Clinton administration.

House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-TX) is one such opponent, who claims the FBI is "whitewashing" the situation. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, is another strong vocal opponent.

The feds must be thinking they can't win as the recent challenges seem to be a reprise of complaints lodged in September before the Senate committee. Internet pioneer Vint Cerf was treated to a private review of the system and found it to be as it was advertised by the bureau.

EPIC sounded the alarm in October when it said the FBI was at work with a more expansive suite of surveillance tools than Carnivore, called Dragon Ware.

Additional details of the independent review will be released later Tuesday.