ACLU Slams Biased Review Team Thumbs-Up for Government Snoopware Program "Carnivore"

November 21, 2000 12:00 am

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Tuesday, November 21, 2000

WASHINGTON–The American Civil Liberties Union today greeted with skepticism but little surprise preliminary reports on a new FBI Internet surveillance tool, saying that a biased review team guaranteed a pat on the head to the system known as Carnivore.

“What surprises me is not that the review team is telling reporters that they gave a thumbs-up to Carnivore, but that they expect anyone outside of the government to take this report seriously,” said Barry Steinhardt, Associate Director of the ACLU.

The report, which will not be released to the public and the media until 5 p.m. today, is part of a review process grudgingly agreed to by the Justice Department to examine the technical capabilities of the system.

“This report is, at best, a fuzzy snapshot of Carnivore, and it will be obsolete in two months when the FBI comes out with the next version of Carnivore,” Steinhardt said.

Despite the review team’s assurances in news stories today that Carnivore does not “overcollect” evidence, documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by the ACLU clearly state that Carnivore could “reliably capture and archive all unfiltered traffic to the internal hard drive.”

Steinhardt noted that the review panel from the Illinois Institute of Technology apparently was not allowed to look the bulk of the cases where Carnivore was used because of “national security” concerns, and that the team was not asked to look into the assertion by Internet Service Providers that they are capable of providing court-ordered information to the government without using Carnivore.

The Carnivore system — essentially a computer running specialized software — is attached to an Internet Service Provider’s network and searches through all of its customers’ electronic messages (including e-mail, web addresses and instant messages) looking for the messages of a person suspected of a crime.

Most of the nation’s prestigious academic computer departments either declined to review the system or withdrew their applications after objecting to constraints the Justice Department placed on the review, Steinhardt noted, adding that many of the experts selected to review Carnivore have extensive ties to federal law enforcement agencies and the White House.

Dozens of politicians from across the political spectrum have called on Attorney General Janet Reno to suspend the use of Carnivore until Congress can determine its legality. The ACLU said it will ask the new Attorney General to do so when she or he takes office early next year.

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