New documents shed more light on FBI's "Carnivore"

The agency releases fresh documents about the controversial technology, and critics immediately lambaste it as proof that the email-tapping program is more invasive than disclosed.

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The FBI released additional documents about its controversial Carnivore technology Thursday, and critics immediately lambasted it as proof that the email-tapping program is more powerful and invasive than the government has disclosed.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), which sued the FBI for the information through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), said the batch of paperwork indicates that Carnivore can capture and archive "unfiltered" Internet traffic--contrary to FBI assertions.

Gartner analyst William Spernow says concern over Carnivore is probably overstated and is at least premature.

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"The little information that has become public raises serious questions about the privacy implications of this technology," EPIC general counsel David Sobel said in a statement. "The American public cannot be expected to accept an Internet snooping system that is veiled in secrecy."

Among the information included in the documents was a sentence stating that the PC that is used to sift through email "could reliably capture and archive all unfiltered traffic to the internal hard drive." The FBI document was dated June 5 and contained scores of deleted words and phrases.

EPIC did not offer additional details about the source or the purpose of this particular document.

The FBI has defended the surveillance system, assuring the public that it only captures email and other online information authorized for seizure in a court order. According to testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee by FBI Assistant Director Donald M. Kerr, Carnivore uses a software filter to minimize the amount of data the government can collect.

An independent team from the Illinois Institute of Technology is due to file a draft "technical report" on the Carnivore system with the Justice Department on Friday.

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, presumably searching for notes sent by people under investigation.

Carnivore 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.

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.

In late September, 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.

EPIC is one of Carnivore's staunchest foes. In October, the organization complained that the FBI's release of 565 pages of Carnivore documents contained little relevant information. In particular, EPIC bitterly decried the FBI's refusal to publish source code to the Carnivore system.

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 Aug. 2, U.S. District Judge James Robertson ordered the FBI to report back to the court by Aug. 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.

The batch of documents released Thursday represents the second installment, and the FBI is required to release additional files at regular intervals until all 3,000 pages have been delivered to EPIC.