Reining in Carnivore

SAN MATEO (08/02/2000) - Privacy advocates at the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) on Wednesday bit into the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation's "Carnivore" e-mail surveillance system, asking a federal judge to smack a temporary restraining order on the controversial system until the FBI discloses key information about the effort.

Washington-based EPIC has charged the FBI with breaking the Freedom of Information Act by refusing to turn over information on Carnivore that the group requested.

The American Civil Liberties Union made a similar request for information that has also gone unfulfilled, EPIC said.

EPIC and other privacy advocates have blasted the FBI recently for use of its Carnivore system, claiming the system can comb through millions of e-mails in its efforts to monitor traffic from Internet service providers and intercept e-mails sent by criminals.

EPIC's legal action flies in the face of a recent FBI promise to disclose the technical specifications to a select group in order to allay privacy concerns.

And late last month before a congressional committee, Donald Kerr, assistant director for FBI's Laboratory Division, defended and stood by Carnivore's capabilities.

The system does not "search through the contents of every message and collect those that contain certain key words like 'bomb' or 'drugs,'" Kerr said.

Instead, he explained, the system "sniffs" out messages based on parameters prescribed only by court order.

EPIC, however, is holding out for full public disclosure of certain information about the system. The group wants released all records about the system, including information about the software the application resides on and legal analysis done on the system's use.

"The only way that the privacy questions can be resolved is for the FBI to release all relevant information, both legal and technical," said David Sobel, EPIC's general counsel, in a statement .

EPIC expects the U.S. District Court to hold a hearing on the group's request for emergency injunctive relief within the week.

Jennifer Jones is an InfoWorld senior editor.

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