FRAMINGHAM (08/17/2000) - The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has collected some 3,000 pages of information about its controversial e-mail surveillance tool, Carnivore, and will begin to make some of the papers available in 45 days, the Department of Justice said.
The announcement, which came late Wednesday in Washington, was made in response to a legal challenge being waged by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a watchdog group that wants the FBI to disclose more about what Carnivore is and how it works.
In a letter to EPIC, John M. Kelso Jr., a Justice Department section chief, announced that the agency will begin reviewing the collected documents and then release them in batches every 45 days.
David Sobel, general counsel for the Washington-based EPIC, said the FBI response, however, is problematic because it offers no end date for the releases.
"So it could take years," Sobel said. "That's the problem. It's entirely open-ended."
"There's a lot of speculation about what Carnivore is and how it works, and we think it's critical that it be made public," Sobel said.
EPIC had filed a Freedom of Information Act request earlier to get information about Carnivore from the bureau. EPIC sought a motion for a temporary restraining order to compel the FBI to release the information, but the motion was made moot when the bureau announced just before the hearing that it would release the details.
Sobel said, though, that the schedule announced Wednesday isn't satisfactory.
He would like to receive all of the information about Carnivore by Dec. 1, which is when the DOJ expects to have completed its own internal review of the system.
"I anticipate that we will probably ask the court to step in and modify this schedule to provide for a definite rate of progress and a definite completion date," he said.
Chris Watney, a DOJ spokesman, said her agency's review of the documents will take time because they must be carefully combed for proprietary information and other sensitive material. She wouldn't elaborate on what might be censored out of the documents before they are released.
Watney said she isn't sure how many documents will be released by the agency at any one time and confirmed that no ending date has been set for the disclosures.
According to the FBI, Carnivore is an e-mail surveillance system that will allow law enforcement officials to monitor e-mails to and from suspected criminals to track their activities. The Carnivore system would be installed at the office of the suspect's Internet service provider only after a judge grants a court order permitting the monitoring, according to the bureau.
Critics have charged that the FBI will use the system to monitor the online activities of law-abiding citizens and have demanded that the government disclose details about the technology and its proposed use.