Meet Carnivore, the FBI's latest advance in its never-ending war on privacy. Carnivore is a super-fast computer system stuffed with specialized software designed to covertly search for e-mails from criminal suspects, MSNBC reported this week.
The Internet wiretapping system was unveiled two weeks ago after being developed at FBI labs in Quantico, VA. It is called Carnivore because it can rapidly get to "the meat" of huge data flows. It replaces an earlier system, appropriately called Omnivore, which could suck in as much as six gigabytes of data every hour, but in a less discriminating fashion.
The FBI said it has used Carnivore in fewer than a hundred criminal investigations so far. They were predominantly investigations of suspected hackers, drug traffickers or terrorists. But it has at least 20 Carnivore systems on hand, "just in case."
Carnivore is raising hackles in the Internet world because it must be hooked directly into Internet service providers' (ISP) networks. That gives the government the ability, at least theoretically, to scan all communications on an ISP's network. Not only e-mail, but also Web surfing and online financial transaction could be monitored.
Carnivore sits in a locked cage on the ISP's premises, with feds coming by daily to retrieve the captured data.
Internet wiretaps require a state or federal court order and are relatively rare now, but are expected to become more prevalent as use of the Web increases.
Mark Rasch, a former federal computer-crimes prosecutor, told MSNBC that Carnivore is problematic because it looks at every bit of data that flows past, so it can decide what needs to be recorded for police purposes.
"It's the electronic equivalent of listening to everybody's phone calls to see if it's the phone call you should be monitoring," Rasch said. "You develop a tremendous amount of information."
"Once the software is applied to the ISP, there's no check on the system," said Rep. Bob Barr (R-GA), who sits on a House judiciary subcommittee for constitutional affairs. "If there's one word I would use to describe this, it would be 'frightening.'"
One recourse for people and organizations worried about FBI snooping is encryption. Carnivore can still capture the messages, but it can't read them. If the encryption program is powerful enough, Internet law enforcement lurkers will be out of luck.