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Carnivore is an unnecessary system that should be replaced by one that infringes less on the privacy of Internet users, such as one that records the data of certain subscribers and sends only that information to the FBI. The methods used for intercepting communications, from simple wiretapping to the NSA’s ECHELON satellite surveillance system, have been designed as a means of intercepting information concerning criminal and terrorist plans and using that information to apprehend suspects before they cause any harm. Carnivore, the FBI’s email “wiretapping” system, is used to scan emails on a specific ISP that is believed to be hosting a suspected criminal.
Carnivore was designed to scan packets of information passing through a router in search of suspicious activity. It looks for keywords and names in the headers of emails and other data that may lead to the prevention of crimes or apprehension of suspects. It is believed that Carnivore was derived from commercial online detection software known as Etherpeek. [Tyson] In February 1997, the system known as “Omnivore” was proposed to run on Solaris X86 computers. In June 1999, it was replaced by the Carnivore system, which runs on Windows NT-based computers. [Konrad] Carnivore is part of a system known as the DragonWare Suite. This system contains three parts: Carnivore, the system that captures information; Packeteer, which is believed to be used as a packet reassembler; and Coolminer, an application that is thought to be capable of analyzing the data collected. [Tyson] It was recommended that Carnivore’s name be changed because its current name caused people to infer that it would aggressively invade their privacy. Because of its job as a “digital collection system,” it was recently renamed DCS1000. [Luening] It has also been said that the FBI has merely “dressed its online wolf in sheep’s clothing” [Luening].
When a suspected criminal is detected, a court order for investigation must be issued, and then a Carnivore machine is set up at the suspect’s ISP. It then scans all incoming and outgoing data for every user on that ISP. It is claimed that only the headers of emails are scanned for information and that the contents are left alone, but there are questions as to whether or not this is true and, if it is not, whether citizens can trust the government not to read personal email while searching for their suspect.
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For all intents and purposes, Carnivore was meant to be used as an antiterrorism device and an aid to apprehension of suspects communicating across the Internet. Carnivore has done its job in this sense, but at what cost to the privacy of other Internet users? It is a breach of privacy for all users of the target ISP. The FBI says that Carnivore only sniffs “what [they] want it to . . . [and ignores] everything else” [Stephenson]. Yes, this system is a machine that only searches for what it is told, but how many people actually trust the FBI and the government to do nothing but what they are supposed to? Also, if we do believe they are completely honest in their methods, it is still questionable if they really know what to look for: there are so many different ways to infer what one means through email that the specific keywords being searched for may never be found. In searching, they would have to find all of the misspellings and variations of these words, which would in turn be likely to return even more innocent messages. For instance, if terrorists are talking about bombing something, they may never mention bombs; they could say “bmb”, “b0mb”, “bmob”, or even “60/\/\6”, for a few examples. So is a keyword search really that effective in hunting down more dangerous criminals? Sure, some amateurs could get caught, but those who were set on reaching their goals would be wary of such simple tracking techniques as keyword searches. Also, Carnivore scans millions of packets; it is very improbable that all of them can be recorded and tracked. However, while one side says Carnivore is not nearly powerful enough to be of much use considering the size of the Internet, supporters of it say that it would otherwise be completely impossible to find anything suspicious online. No one really knows the right explanation because there still has not been very much released information on the system. While some say that Carnivore takes wide sweeps of systems and picks up relevant information, others state the opposite. In a testimony, Attorney Robert Corn-Revere stated that it had been acknowledged that Carnivore could capture more information than was allowed, but “it would be programmed to obtain only information from the target subscriber’s account, and would be configured not to intercept the content of any communication” [Testimony]. Many people are untrusting or afraid of Carnivore just because there is not enough information to explain its purposes and workings well.
There have even been instances of Carnivore interfering with investigations. The Electronic Privacy Information Center obtained FBI documents that mentioned the collection of data that the FBI was not authorized to view. This led to the eradication of all of the collected data, which included information tied to Osama Bin Laden. [FBI] It was also found that data involving the September 11 attacks was collected before the attacks, but the FBI and CIA “failed to coordinate and respond to the information” [Bowman].
Associate Director of the American Civil Liberties Union Berry Steinhardt said the Carnivore system was like a "wiretap capable of accessing the contents of the conversations of all of the phone company's customers, with the assurance that the FBI will record only conversations of the specified target” [ACLU]. Apparently, Carnivore is sometimes helpful when it comes to investigations, but it does not seem effective enough to warrant the loss of privacy to other Internet users. Some people pay no attention to the chance that their email will be scanned or would not care if it was. If they have nothing to hide, there is no chance the FBI would bother them after reading any specific emails, nor would it be likely to know or care who that person even was. Other people use their email to send personal information that they would prefer no one else know about; some just do not sit well with the idea that someone could be intercepting and reading their emails, no matter how personal they are or if they would ever meet that person. I am part of the latter group who would prefer not to release any unnecessary information to something as large and accessible as the Internet. Anything sent across the Internet can be and is intercepted at certain points, and many people would prefer that it was not. The knowledge that a Carnivore machine could be running on an ISP basically cuts away the rest of the feelings of privacy people who know about it once had. It is slightly less bothersome that it is legal to only scan the sending and receiving email addresses—just like only the caller and original receiver can be tracked if a phone call is forwarded. I would probably use email much less or almost not at all if Carnivore were ever allowed to scan entire emails. I do understand that whatever goes to an ISP is backed up there, but at least it is not being actively scanned and possibly read by humans. People would be much better off and much happier if Carnivore were put out of use and the ISP only sent the FBI information about suspected users. They are, after all, incapable of actively scanning and recording everything that goes through the ISP, so it would be more comforting and also more efficient if only information of suspicious users was recorded and then handed over to the FBI. Some have done this. After the September 11 attack, AOL spokesman Andrew Weinstein stated that Carnivore was unnecessary because they “are able to provide [the FBI] with information on an immediate basis” [Lemos]. EPIC stated that Carnivore is a “powerful but clumsy tool that endangers the privacy” [FBI] of Americans. I agree with their initial suggestion that Carnivore’s use be “suspended until the questions surrounding it can finally be resolved” [FBI]. Until Carnivore works better and can be trusted by the majority of Internet users, a more efficient system should be implemented.
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