WASHINGTON (08/10/2000) - The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has informed a U.S. congressman who is seeking information about an e-mail sniffer program known as Carnivore that the agency is not ready to release details about the system.
The FBI, in a letter Wednesday to Representative Bob Barr, a Republican from Georgia, said the bureau was "not presently in a position" to provide the documents he requested, an FBI spokesman confirmed Thursday.
"There remains substantial public misunderstanding and misinformation about the system," John Collingwood, assistant director for public affairs, wrote in the letter, which was quoted in a Wall Street Journal article Thursday. Neither the FBI nor Barr would release the full text of the letter.
Carnivore has been used by the FBI in criminal and national security investigations to read the e-mail of suspects and determine with whom the suspects are exchanging e-mail. The FBI has said its use is legal under U.S. wiretap law, but privacy advocates aren't convinced that Carnivore meets those strict guidelines and have criticized the FBI for using the technology.
U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno reiterated Thursday the government's plans to find a university or independent laboratory to conduct verification and validation of the Carnivore system.
"What we are doing is reaching out to major universities to try to retain such a university with expertise in the area to review the Carnivore system and provide a report on the findings," Reno said, according to a transcript of her weekly briefing. "I will approve the final selection of the university after consulting with the privacy and the law enforcement community."
The review team will have total access to any information it needs to conduct the review, and interested parties will be briefed on the findings, she added.
The review team's report also will be made available to the public.
Donald Kerr, director of the FBI's lab division, told a subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee more than two weeks ago about the FBI's search for an independent laboratory to conduct a verification and validation process. The San Diego Supercomputer Center in California has been asked whether it will conduct the tests, Kerr said after testifying. [See "Subcommittee Finds Carnivore Unappetizing," July 24.]The FBI still faces a hearing Wednesday in U.S. District Court at which it is to supply the Electronic Privacy Information Center information on the status of its request for details about Carnivore under the Freedom of Information Act. [See "UPDATE - Judge Orders FBI to Open Up Carnivore," August 3.] Barr, who had no comment on the letter on Thursday, according to his spokesman, introduced the Digital Privacy Act of 2000 on July 28. The legislation updates wiretapping laws to enhance privacy protections and bring them in line with technological developments, such as the Internet, wireless phones and electronic mail. [See "ACLU Calls for Limits on FBI's Carnivore System," July 14.]The bill would extend reporting statutes so that law enforcement officials would have to report on its interception of electronic communications, such as e-mail. It would also block the introduction of electronic evidence in court if it is obtained illegally and prevent the government from tracking the location of cell phone users without a court order.