FBI demos e-mail sniffer program 'Carnivore'

ITworld.com |  Business

The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation provided details on Friday about a controversial technology that law enforcement officials began using recently to uncover evidence in e-mail.

The officials held a briefing and a demonstration of the program, nicknamed "Carnivore," for reporters at FBI headquarters, and said they were confident the system is entirely legal. FBI officials have used the technology in about 25 cases over the past year to assist them in criminal and national security investigations.

The American Civil Liberties Union and privacy advocates who aren't convinced that Carnivore meets the strict guidelines governing the use of wiretaps have criticized the FBI for using this technology.

Internet service providers (ISPs) also have questioned the use of Carnivore because the FBI requires their assistance in installing the system, which consists of a PC running the Windows operating system and proprietary software, FBI officials said at the briefing.

The FBI began developing Carnivore about three years ago, when law enforcement officers began seeking and obtaining court orders to intercept e-mail as part of their investigations. Some were requests to track only the identity of a person with whom a suspect was communicating, while other requests were to uncover the full content of messages.

The FBI says the result was Carnivore, which they say is designed to operate in strict conformance with federal wiretap law and the Electronic Communications Privacy Act.

In the 25 cases in which the system has been used, all but one of the ISPs which were presented with a court order to install the system cooperated, said the FBI officials, who spoke on background and asked that their names not be used. Generally, Carnivore doesn't have to be installed at large ISPs, such as America Online Inc., because they have the required equipment and staff to obtain the information that FBI investigators seek. But in other cases, particularly those involving small ISPs, the FBI has worked with the companies to help them decide where on the network Carnivore should sit
and to assist with other technical issues.

The technicians who have dealt with law enforcement officials in those cases have had no problem with carrying out the installation, the officials said. Carnivore does not adversely affect the flow of traffic on the network, and it can be installed for only as long as the court order allows.

The system works by intercepting part of the stream of packets that moves across the network. The data goes to an interface, and from there the FBI gets a copy of the data in question. The system then puts the data through a filter that is configured to comply with the court order.

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