Critics blast FBI's first release of Carnivore documents

The federal agency releases 565 documents revealing information about its controversial Carnivore wire-tapping technology, although major portions are blacked out.

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The FBI today released documents about its controversial Carnivore technology, but critics blasted the lack of information and said they still could not determine whether the email-tapping program would be an invasion of privacy.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), which sued the FBI for the information through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), complained that the 565-page release contains little relevant information. According to a press release issued by the Washington-based group, nearly 200 pages were withheld in full and about 400 pages were redacted, many completely except for the page numbers.

The FBI also withheld the source code to the Carnivore system--one of the most coveted pieces of information for privacy advocates.

"We intend to pursue the litigation until the relevant documents are disclosed," Marc Rotenberg, EPIC's executive director, said today in a statement. "We do not dispute the need of law enforcement to protect public safety or pursue criminals in the online world. But the use of investigative methods that monitor Internet traffic and capture the private communications of innocent users raise enormously important privacy issues that must be subject to public review and public approval."

According to the documents, the Carnivore program was conceived under the name "Omnivore" in February 1997. It was proposed originally for a Solaris X86 computer. Omnivore was replaced by Carnivore running on a Windows NT-based computer in June 1999. Other documents include discussion of interception of voice over IP (VOIP), reviews of performance tests, and recovery from attacks and crashes for both systems.

EPIC's FOIA request seeks the public release of all FBI records concerning Carnivore, including the source code, other technical details and legal analyses addressing the potential privacy implications of the technology.

At an emergency hearing on August 2, U.S. District Judge James Robertson ordered the FBI to report back to the court by August 16 and to identify the amount of material at issue and the Bureau's schedule for releasing it. The FBI subsequently reported that 3,000 pages of material were located, but it refused to commit to a delivery date.

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Today's batch of documents represents the first installment. The FBI is required to release additional files at regular intervals, until all 3,000 pages have been delivered to EPIC.

The Carnivore system, which is installed at Internet service providers, captures "packets" of Internet traffic as they travel through ISP networks. The program sifts through millions of mail messages, searching for notes sent by people under investigation.

While a useful tool for monitoring specific individuals, the program has caused an uproar in Congress and among privacy advocates who fear the FBI's ability to retrieve email belonging to people who are not under investigation. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., are among the elected officials who have publicly criticized the program and called for an independent investigation.

Under mounting pressure, Attorney General Janet Reno said in July that she would look into the program. Last week, the U.S. Justice Department tapped the IIT Research Institute, an arm of the Illinois Institute of Technology, to perform an independent review of Carnivore.

The review, however, also has been criticized. Several prominent universities, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), backed out of the application process, saying restrictions placed on the scope of the review took away from its independence.

Meanwhile, other steps are in the works to tame the Carnivore program. Last week, the House Judiciary Committee approved in a 20-1 vote a bill by Rep. Charles Canady, R-Fla., that would severely restrict the FBI's operation of Carnivore.

The bill would give email the same protection awarded to voice conversations under federal wiretap law. A House vote hasn't been scheduled for the bill, but it could be attached to one of the spending bills that must pass before Congress adjourns this year.

News.com's Patrick Ross contributed to this report.