How Carnivore Worked

Prey of the Carnivore

The FBI planned to use Carnivore for specific reasons. Particularly, the agency would request a court order to use Carnivore when a person was suspected of:

  • Terrorism
  • Child pornography/exploitation
  • Espionage
  • Information warfare
  • Fraud

There are some key issues that caused a great deal of concern from various sources:

  • Privacy - Many folks viewed Carnivore as a severe violation of privacy. While the potential for abuse is certainly there, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) provides legal protection of privacy for all types of electronic communication. Any type of electronics surveillance requires a court order and must show probable cause that the suspect is engaged in criminal activities. Therefore, use of Carnivore in any way that did not adhere to ECPA was illegal and could be considered unconstitutional.
  • Regulation - There was a widespread belief that Carnivore was a huge system that could allow the U.S. government to seize control of the Internet and regulate its use. To do this would have required an amazing infrastructure -- the FBI would have needed to place Carnivore systems at every ISP, including private, commercial and educational. While it is theoretically possible to do so for all of the ISPs operating in the United States, there is still no way to regulate those operating outside of U.S. jurisdiction. Any such move would have also faced serious opposition from every direction.
  • Free speech - Some people think that Carnivore monitored all of the content flowing through an ISP, looking for certain keywords such as "bomb" or "assassination." Any packet sniffer can be set to look for certain patterns of characters or data. Without probable cause, though, the FBI had no justification to monitor your online activity and would have been in severe violation of ECPA and your constitutional right to free speech if it did so.
  • Echelon - This is a secret network rumored to be under development by the National Security Agency (NSA), supposedly designed to detect and capture packets crossing international borders that contain certain keywords, such as "bomb" or "assassination." There is no solid evidence to support the existence of Echelon. Many people confused this rumored system with the Carnivore system.

­ All of these concerns made the implementation of Carnivore an uphill battle for the FBI. The FBI refused to disclose the source code and certain other pieces of technical information about Carnivore, which only added to people's concerns. But, as long as it was used within the constraints and guidelines of ECPA, Carnivore had the potential to be a useful weapon in the war on crime.

For more information on Carnivore and related topics, check out the links below.

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