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Thursday, 13 July, 2000, 00:35 GMT 01:35 UK
Carnivore upsets privacy groups
Graphic BBC
Carnivore can apparently scan millions of e-mails a second
By BBC News Online's Kevin Anderson in Washington

Privacy groups are protesting about a new FBI computer system that can reportedly intercept and analyse millions of e-mail messages a second.

Nobody knows how it works and how it can be targeted. It's a black box

James Dempsey
The system has also raised concerns from internet service providers (ISPs) because it is installed directly on their networks.

The FBI has dubbed the system "Carnivore" for its ability "to get to the meat" of the intercepted messages.

Carnivore scans all the incoming and outgoing e-mail of people under surveillance.

The agency acknowledged the existence of such a system two weeks ago when it discussed it with telecommunications experts.

Carnivore comes to light

The system first came to light during congressional testimony in April.

Washington lawyer Robert Corn-Revere told a House of Representatives subcommittee how an ISP was asked to allow the government to install the Carnivore system.

The FBI says that they need Carnivore to keep pace with the internet
Apart from the technology, ISPs find themselves in an awkward position under present law with respect to investigations and user privacy.

Under present law, ISPs are civilly liable if they reveal subscriber information or e-mail to the government without first requiring a warrant, court order or subpoena.

And, ISPs may be liable if the government obtains information through the use of "improper subpoenas," the lawyer said.

"Service providers may be placed in an awkward position where, as here, they show a willingness to comply with the government's request yet face the possibility of liability if they do so," Mr Corn-Revere said.

In addition, the government told the ISP that the Carnivore system would be capable of capturing much more information than authorised under the court order, but that they would programme the system to target only information from a suspect's account.

Black box

The American Civil Liberties Union called on Congress to "put a leash on Carnivore".

Barry Steinhardt, Associate Director of the ACLU said that Carnivore "is comparable to allowing government agents to rip open Post Office mailbags and scan every piece of mail in search of one specific letter whose address they already know".

Capitol BBC
The system came to light during congressional testimony
James Dempsey from the Centre for Democracy and Technology said that what is even more unsettling is the secrecy surrounding the device.

"Nobody knows how it works and how it can be targeted. It's a black box," he said.

When scanning the e-mail, "does it go by the 'to' line, the 'from' line, the IP number? Can it search by subject lines?" he asked.

Mr Dempsey has called for the FBI to release Carnivore's specialised sniffer software to the public, allowing experts to examine and understand it.

He also said that ISPs should be responsible for collecting the information, not the government.

"The service provider sits like a buffer. They give government what they are entitled to without letting them into the network," he said.

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See also:

08 Apr 00 | Americas
US struggles with cyber-crime
01 Jul 98 | Europe
Spying on the Net
12 Jul 00 | Sci/Tech
'Snooping' bill protests stepped up
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