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Carnivore Essay, Research Paper

Technology Report

Is big Brother watching our every computer move? Is the government (FBI, specifically) reading and filtering our email and where we go on the web? According to the critics of the FBI’s new CARNIVORE program, the answer is a resounding “yes”. However, according to FBI spokesperson John Collingwood (in a letter to the LA Times on August 7, 2000), CARNIVORE is not a government-backed spy program to invade the privacy of US citizens–it is an effective weapon (similar to phone taps) in the war against crime.

The articles for this review included: 1. “Critics attack FBI email snooping device” at CNN.com (7/12/00); 2. “Email snoop “CARNIVORE” to get review” at channelcincinnati.com (7/25/00); and 3. “Newly released FBI documents show CARNIVORE can swallow more information than bureau claims” at epi.org (11/16/00).

What is CARNIVORE? According to the FBI, CARNIVORE is a program used in conjunction with a suspect’s ISP (and ordered by the court) to collect internet and email information on specific suspects in active crime investigations. It is a filtering tool to collect information to be used in the conviction of criminals. The FBI reports that the program is not used to randomly spy on individuals, nor does it record all of the traffic from an ISP. Similar to how a wiretap records phone calls, CARNIVORE captures email messages and all network traffic from an individual’s IP address by filtering all of the data at an ISP.

The ACLU argues that CARNIVORE “breaches the ISP’s rights and rights of its customers by reading both sender and recipient addresses, as well as subject lines of emails to decide whether to make a copy of the entire message” (CNN.com, 7/12/00). Their other concern is that CARNIVORE is completed controlled by the law enforcement officials, unlike a wiretap that is maintained by the local phone company. The ACLU compares CARNIVORE to a wiretap that can monitor all of the phone company’s customers. They believe citizens should not trust that CARNIVORE will be used to only monitor criminals, but could be abused and used to randomly monitor anyone’s messages and travels on the internet.

In the Electronic Privacy Information Center’s article, EPIC reports that the physical CARNIVORE system (there are 20 in existence at present) “could reliably capture and archive all unfiltered traffic to the internal hard drive”. The CARNIVORE system uses a 300Mhz PII with 384mg of RAM that has a Zip and Jaz drive which are both capable of being updated daily by the FBI, or other law enforcement officials. To address these concerns over privacy, the Justice Department has ordered an independent review of CARNIVORE by the Illinois Institute of Technology. The review was scheduled to be completed on November 17, 2000 but the report has not been made pubic. EPIC received their information only after filing a Freedom of Information lawsuit against the Justice Department and continues to urge the public not to trust a system that is entrenched in such secrecy. They urge the public to demand that the Justice Department fully disclose how CARNIVORE operates.

To date, the FBI has used CARNIVORE 25 times, with 10 incidents involving national security and 6 domestic criminal cases. There have been no court cases yet to use data from CARNIVORE for evidence so the FBI has been tight-lipped regarding the data collected. This secrecy, of course, fuels the controversy.

Other concerns regarding CARNIVORE include:

1. Is CARNIVORE hacker-proof (is the information collected protected from

unauthorized access?

2. Does the software violate freedom of speech?

3. Will CARNIVORE disrupt the ISP’s network?

These questions will be answered when the IIT report is released. In the interim, CARNIVORE definitely has the potential to be abused by law enforcement officials. The warnings of ALCU and EPIC seem warranted and the public should be skeptical of a secret project that can be used to spy on their internet activities. What guarantees do we have that CARNIVORE will only be used during criminal investigations? Critics agree that the answer is “none”. The public should be concerned over the possibility of their privacy rights being violated.

So, is big brother watching? I believe the answer (potentially) is yes. We should demand more information on CARNIVORE. We should also demand that CARNIVORE be maintained by the ISP, only at the order of the court. If the ISP maintains the system (like the phone company maintains wiretaps), the chances of abuse by law enforcement officials would be lessened. Although CARNIVORE is probably not capable of widespread monitoring of all internet activities, it has the potential for abuse. We (the public) should strive to keep it that way so our surfing is kept private. Who knows what our congressman, CEO, or schoolteacher is viewing on the internet. And frankly, who cares. That information should remain private.


1. “Critics attack FBI email snooping device” at CNN.com (7/12/00); 2. “Email snoop “CARNIVORE” to get review” at channelcincinnati.com (7/25/00); and 3. “Newly released FBI documents show CARNIVORE can swallow more information than bureau claims” at epi.org (11/16/00).


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