At the same time that politicians have been complaining that e-commerce companies aren’t doing enough to respect the privacy of Internet users, along comes the revelation that the FBI has developed an electronic surveillance system called Carnivore which lets it monitor millions of e-mails.
The system is as simple as it is insidious. First, the FBI obtains a court order to monitor the email of a particular person. These have become trivially easy to get thanks to the Clinton administration. Second, the FBI goes to the Internet Service Provider that the person uses and attaches its Carnivore system. Basically the Carnivore system intercepts every single e-mail message that is coming in through that system and is supposed to then filter out and capture only the e-mail from the person covered under the court order.
But as former federal computer-crimes prosecutor Mark Rasch told the Wall Street Journal, this is “the electronic equivalent of listening to everybody’s phone calls to see if it’s the phone call you should be monitoring. You develop a tremendous amount of information.”
The real problem being, of course, that there is no check on the system once it’s in place and based on its history only a fool would trust the FBI as far as you can throw Louis Freeh. Rep. Bob Barr (R-Georgia), who has led the fight against other government monitoring systems such as Echelon, summed up the problem with Carnivore: “Once the software is applied to the ISP, there’s no check on the system. If there’s one word I would use to describe this, it would be ‘frightening.'”
The Wall Street Journal tracked down an FBI flak, Marcus Thomas, to whine that “This is just a very specialized sniffer” and to point out that there are criminal and civil penalties that prohibit the FBI from conducting unauthorized wiretap and that evidence gleaned from such a wiretap would be inadmissible in court. Apparently Thomas thinks that Americans are stupid with a capital “S.”
Sure the evidence is inadmissible in court, but that doesn’t prevent the FBI from developing criminal cases based on information they find in an unauthorized wiretap and simply forgetting to mention the origin of the original information. Besides, the FBI has in the past managed to put inadmissible evidence to very good use. Much of the information that the FBI collected on civil rights groups was clearly inadmissible in court, but agents still used it to try to destroy people’s reputations and lives.
Fortunately, the FBI hasn’t yet succeeded in banning strong cryptography so anyone who wants to communicate securely over the Internet can still do so by using a program such as Pretty Good Privacy.
Users concerned about eavesdropping by the Feds should treat the FBI as network damage and route around it.
‘Carnivore’ Eats Your Privacy. Wired News, July 11, 2000.
FBI’s system to covertly search e-mail raises privacy, legal issues. The Wall Street Journal, July 11, 2000.