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Carnivore could eat into wireless e-mails

Federal law enforcement officials may use a controversial surveillance technology to monitor e-mail and other text messages delivered through wireless devices, such as cell phones.

Federal law enforcement officials may use a controversial surveillance technology to monitor e-mail and other text messages delivered through wireless devices, such as cell phones--a fact that has one telecommunications group concerned.

In a letter to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell, the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (CTIA) warned that the FBI may start using its DCS1000 surveillance system, originally known as Carnivore, to eavesdrop on wireless communications as early as October.

The CTIA fears the FBI might start using the DCS1000 system because the wireless industry has so far been unable to develop a standard for law enforcement agencies to monitor e-mails sent between handheld devices.

The FCC has set a Sept. 30 deadline for the wireless industry to submit guideline proposals for use of the DCS1000 system.

Although agency officials would not comment on the CTIA's letter, a representative said the FCC intends to decide soon whether to extend the deadline.

In the Aug. 15 letter, the association's vice president and general counsel Michael Altschul wrote: "If the industry is not provided the guidance and time to develop solutions for packet surveillance that intercept only the target's communications, it seems probable that Carnivore, which intercepts all communications in the pathway without the affirmative intervention of the carrier, will be widely implemented."

Privacy advocates, civil libertarians and some lawmakers have criticized Carnivore because they fear the system may be used to snoop on innocent citizens without their knowledge.

The FBI has been using the controversial technology for two years. The Carnivore system, which is installed at Internet service providers, captures "packets" of Internet traffic as they travel through ISP networks. The program monitors millions of mail messages, searching for notes sent by people under investigation.

An FBI representative would not say whether Carnivore has been, or will ever be, used to monitor wireless communications.

Keith Waryas, a wireless analyst with market watcher IDC, said that even if federal officials do snoop on wireless e-mails, they're going to be disappointed with what they find.

Although businesses are starting to use wireless networks to send sensitive e-mails, it's still a small audience. Wireless consumers such as cell phone users are even less apt right now to use such modern services as sending wireless e-mails, he said.

Though there has been some movement by criminal enterprises to use the Internet, that same push hasn't happened yet on wireless, Waryas believes.

"I don't think the world will come to a standstill," he said. "I don't think guys running a drug operation on the corner will have a WAP interface (a type of wireless network) for their distributors."

He also pointed out that hackers already have broken into some wireless networks. This week marked the release of a product called AirSnort, which lets hackers intercept some wireless data transmissions.

"When it comes to wireless, you're talking about broadcasting something. My guess is it doesn't take a rocket scientist to intercept those transmissions," Waryas said.

There is a bill before Congress that would require the attorney general and the FBI director to submit a detailed report on the use of surveillance systems, including Carnivore.