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July 21, 2000
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- FBI officials will go to Capitol Hill on Monday to try to ease public fears that the agency's new Internet surveillance system, dubbed "Carnivore," is a threat to people's privacy.
As part of its effort to soften the system's image, the FBI on Friday put Carnivore, stored in a simple laptop, on display for the media and spent nearly two hours answering reporters' questions.
The FBI maintains Carnivore, which it can use only after getting a court order, is the equivalent of a telephone wiretap. And the agency said the e-mail monitoring system is less intrusive because it can eliminate large volumes of data from categories of electronic traffic irrelevant to the investigation.
Fears of a Big Brother on the Internet
But privacy advocates worry Carnivore is actually Big Brother on the Internet and has great potential for abuse.
"The FBI's position is essentially, 'Trust us, we're the government,'" said Barry Steinhardt of the American Civil Liberties Union. "But we have a long history of the FBI abusing its authority."
Jim Dempsey of the Center for Democracy and Technology also questions how the information gathered will be used.
"Are the communications of innocent people being swept into a net? " said Dempsey. "And I think people also have to worry about what are the underlying legal standards for using something like Carnivore."
FBI officials may face similar questions from lawmakers Monday.
"I'm not convinced that they are doing anything inappropriate," said Rep. Charles Canady, R-Florida, chairman of the Constitution subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee. "The purpose of this hearing is to examine all sides of this to make certain that this is being handled in a way that is legal and Constitutional."
How Carnivore finds what it's looking for
According to the FBI, Carnivore works much like a "sniffer," a program that has been around for some time and is designed to monitor and analyze network traffic so as to help network administrators eliminate such problems as bottlenecks.
But the FBI system has the unique additional ability to detect certain communications such as e-mails while ignoring others such as online shopping orders.
According to officials at the FBI, Carnivore will only scan the identifying addresses in the 'to' and 'from' fields but not the content of electronics messages. They liken it to looking at the front of an envelope.
Before Carnivore can be used in a case, the FBI must go through several high-level judiciary approvals, and inform the relevant Internet service provider of its actions.
FBI officials believe critics will be less fearful once they know more about Carnivore, which has been used in about 25 investigations in the last year, including criminal cases and "national security" cases involving counter-intelligence or counter-terrorism.
Media informs Reno that Carnivore was unleashed
The FBI said it has briefed several governmental agencies and Internet Service Providers. But the agency admits it has failed to adequately anticipate concerns from privacy groups, private citizens and even key administration officials.
Attorney General Janet Reno said while she had been informed that Carnivore was in development, she learned from a newspaper article that the system had already been deployed in actual investigations.
FBI sources told CNN that Reno was briefed on the system by FBI Director Louis Freeh on Thursday.
Reno is one of several officials who have publicly criticized the FBI's choice of names for the new system.
The agency decided to name it Carnivore because, as one official put it, the system "get(s) to the meat" of an investigation. But one top FBI official said the name had been intended only for internal use and conceded that criticism of the name had been "somewhat sobering."
"We'll think further about that in the future," he said.
CNN Justice Department Correspondent Pierre Thomas and CNN Producer Terry Frieden and CNN.com Technology Editor Daniel Sieberg contributed to this report