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Pros and cons of Carnivore

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A topic that has been featured lately in Network World and other publications is the FBI's Carnivore "diagnostic" tool, a system for intercepting data communications, much like a wiretap intercepts telephone communications. Like most controversial technologies, the use of Carnivore has advantages and disadvantages.

To use Carnivore, the FBI installs a tapping device at an ISP access point, copies all data passed through that access point, sends this data through a filter, and captures the filtered data onto a hard disk for analysis. Carnivore is not real time; the hard disk must be retrieved periodically and its contents analyzed. More information on Carnivore can be obtained here.

Here is the contention in support of Carnivore:
A significant amount of criminal activity, and communications about this activity takes place through e-mail. Law enforcement authorities need a way to intercept these communications in an effort to gather sufficient evidence against criminal defendants; in some cases, the lack of e-mail evidence may result in an insufficient level of evidence and felons might otherwise go free. More traditional electronic surveillance techniques have been highly effective in obtaining convictions. Over the past 13 years, electronic surveillance has resulted in the conviction of an average of 2,000 felons each year. Further, there are significant limits placed on the use of Carnivore, because the permission to use Carnivore in a particular case is significantly more difficult to obtain than permission to issue a search warrant, for example, and Carnivore's use can be authorized only by high-level Department of Justice officials.

Here is the argument opposing Carnivore:
While there are currently strict legal limits on how, when and where Carnivore can be used, these limits could change quickly. Earlier this summer, for example, the British government passed a law to allow Carnivore to intercept any e-mail; the Japanese government passed a similar law this summer as well. In 1999, the FBI tried to influence the Internet Engineering Task Force to design government surveillance capability into future Internet protocols, something the IETF declined to do. This refusal, however, may not be the end of the story. Such modification has already occurred in the U.S. telephone network as the result of a 1994 law. As a point of further concern, the current administration has purloined a substantial amount of FBI-generated information if allegations prove to be true. And to top it off, encryption might be able to thwart Carnivore anyway.

We'd like to get your opinion on Carnivore. If you're interested in sharing your opinions on the subject, we'd appreciate your response to the 2-minute survey located at:

We'll send you the survey results for your time and effort.


Michael D. Osterman is the principal of Osterman Research, a market research firm that helps organizations understand the markets for messaging, directory and related products and services. He can be reached by clicking here.

Messaging archive
Past newsletters.

Keeping Cops' Hands Off Email
Wired News, 09/27/00

Current status: Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 2000:

Associated Press: Experts picked to probe Carnivore, 09/27/00

Carnivore review team exposed
Wired News: 09/27/00

Reining in Carnivore
InfoWorld, 08/02/00

DOJ signs Illinois research team to review Carnivore
Computerworld, 09/27/00

Reno describes Carnivore vetting process
IDG News Service, 07/27/00

FBI lays out schedule for releasing Carnivore docs
IDG News Service, 08/17/00

FBI could do better job defending Carnivore
IDG News Service, 08/15/00

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