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Documents reveal Carnivore deficiencies

A privacy watchdog group makes public internal FBI documents that discuss failures of the agency's Carnivore online surveillance technology.

A privacy watchdog group on Tuesday made public internal FBI documents that discuss failures of the agency's Carnivore online surveillance technology.

The documents, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), detail at least one incident in which Carnivore inadvertently captured e-mail from people who were not under investigation, in apparent violation of federal wiretap laws.

The FBI did not immediately return calls for comment.

Carnivore, the FBI's Internet monitoring system that came into the public spotlight in July 2000, is used to monitor Internet traffic and communications through Internet service providers, once the technology's been installed on the ISP's system. Though much of how Carnivore works has remained a mystery as well as a perceived threat to consumer privacy, the FBI has said that the technology filters data to obtain only lawfully authorized information on suspects.

Records on the technology were obtained by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) after years of requests for disclosure. In 2000, EPIC filed a request to view all FBI records related to Carnivore, but after delays for response from the Department of Justice, the organization filed suit in U.S. District Court demanding the release of the data. Documents retrieved last week were part of a court summons issued by U.S. District Judge James Robertson that directed the FBI to complete a comprehensive search for documents. The search was to be conducted in the offices of General Counsel and Congressional & Public Affairs.

As part of the documents published by EPIC, one internal FBI e-mail, dated April 5, 2000, discusses how the "software was turned on and did not work correctly," according to the e-mail. Carnivore not only gathered electronic communications on suspects that the FBI obtained a warrant to search, but it also retained e-mail from other individuals, according to the documents. The malfunction resulted in an FBI technician to destroy information on all parties.

As a result, the act could have thwarted an investigation into terrorist threats involving Osama bin Laden, according to EPIC. The surveillance was performed by the FBI's International Terrorism Operations Section (ITOS) and its "UBL Unit," which refers to the government's official designation for bin Laden.

"These documents confirm what many of us have believed for two years--Carnivore is a powerful but clumsy tool that endangers the privacy of innocent American citizens," EPIC's General Counsel David Sobel said in a statement.

"Our FOIA lawsuit shows that there's a great deal about Carnivore that we still don't know."