Carnivore Fights Online Crime

7 December 2000
Recently, the FBI rolled out its newest technological weapon in the fight against criminals who use the Internet to commit crimes. It's called Carnivore, and saying that it's controversial is an understatement.

Some say that it gives the police a much-needed tool to help combat terrorism and uncover criminal activity online. Privacy advocates call it a government plot to spy on unsuspecting citizens.

The FBI didn't help itself by naming it Carnivore. They could have given it a warm fuzzy name like Sniffing Dog, or a justice-promoting name like E-Crime Stopper.

Still, from what I know about Carnivore, it appears that much of the negative hype surrounding Carnivore isn't true. In reality, Carnivore does nothing more than enable the police to detect criminal activity that has been planned or carried out online, in much the same way that wiretaps have allowed them to uncover more traditional forms of crime.

To understand how Carnivore works, you have to understand how you send messages over the Internet. When you press the send button of your e-mail software or instant message program, your message is broken down into many little packets. Each packet contains only a part of the text of your message, along with your Internet address, and the Internet address of the person to whom you are sending your message. Eventually, once all the packets arrive at their final destination, Carnivore recombines them in the correct order and displays the message.

What Carnivore does is intercept all of the packets traversing through your Internet service provider, and scans each one to see if it's addressed to or from a criminal suspect. Carnivore copies and retains any packet that includes a criminal suspect's e-mail or Internet protocol address, while it allows all other packets to pass through freely. Once it has received all of the targeted packets, Carnivore re-assembles them.

Keep in mind, this concept of packet interception, or packet sniffing, isn't new. In fact, the technology has been around for years, and to some extent every firewall and computer network used today incorporates it. Still, Carnivore marks the first time that the government is using the technology to battle crime.

Traditionally, the FBI has relied upon two federal laws to authorize the interception of private electronic communications, or wiretaps, in the United States. In sum, these laws say that the FBI can't wiretap your telephone lines without first providing evidence to a federal judge that there is probable cause to believe that you're committing a crime.

Further, the FBI must provide evidence to prove that their use of a wiretap is absolutely necessary (as opposed to other forms of surveillance), and that the wiretap will likely reveal additional pertinent evidence.

Although Carnivore is far more sophisticated than traditional wiretapping equipment, it's still subject to these same legal limitations and safeguards. Also, by law, the police can't retain or review any "innocent" e-mail packets intercepted by Carnivore.

Critics point out, however, that Carnivore reads every piece of e-mail it receives. Of course, this does and should raise serious privacy concerns.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that Carnivore is perfect. Clearly, the potential for abuse of Carnivore exists. However, at the same time, the FBI claims to have successfully used the device to counter terrorism, and capture pedophiles and drug traffickers. Dealing with criminals often forces us to decide where we want to strike the balance between our privacy and giving the police the tools that they need to protect us.

Mark Grossman's "TechLaw" column appears in numerous publications. Mark Grossman has extensive experience as a speaker as well. If you would like him to speak before your group or corporate meeting, please call (305) 443-8180 for information.

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