ACLU Urges Congress to Put a Leash on "Carnivore" And Other Government Snoopware Programs

July 12, 2000 12:00 am

Media Contact
125 Broad Street
18th Floor
New York, NY 10004
United States


WASHINGTON — Law enforcement officials using new surveillance technologies online are racing far ahead of established privacy law and must be reined in, the American Civil Liberties Union said today.

In a letter sent to Charles T. Canady, R-FL, Chair of the Constitution Subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee, and ranking member Melvin L. Watt, D-NC, the ACLU said that the unbridled uses of these technologies “cry out for Congressional attention if we are to preserve Fourth Amendment rights in the digital age.”

Specifically, the ACLU sharply criticized the FBI’s new online wiretapping program, dubbed “Carnivore,” that uses Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to intercept and analyze huge amounts of e-mail from suspects and non-suspects alike.

“It is high time that lawmakers put a leash on Carnivore and other government schemes that go way beyond what Congress authorized under the Electronic Communications Protection Act,” said Laura W. Murphy, director of the ACLU’s Washington National Office and an author of the letter.

Currently, law enforcement is required to “minimize” its interception of non-incriminating communications of a target of a wiretap order. But Carnivore does just the opposite, Murphy said, by sweeping in e-mails from innocent Internet users as well as the targeted suspect.

Barry Steinhardt, Associate Director of the ACLU and an author of the letter, said that implementing Carnivore “is comparable to allowing government agents to rip open Post Office mailbags and scan every piece of mail in search of one specific letter whose address they already know.”

He also noted that while the system is plugged into the ISP, it is controlled solely by the law enforcement agency. In a traditional wiretap, the tap is physically placed and maintained by the telephone company.

The snoopware program first came to light during an April 6 hearing before the Constitution Subcommittee. The Carnivore system — essentially a computer running specialized software– is attached either when law enforcement has a court order permitting it to intercept in “real time” the contents of the electronic communications of a specific individual, or a trap-and-trace or pen register order allowing to it obtain the numbers related to communications from or to a specified target.

But “in the Internet context,” the ACLU letter said, “these orders and certainly Carnivore likely involve ascertaining the suspect’s e-mail address, as well as header information that may provide information regarding the content of the communication.”

In urging Congress to accelerate its consideration of applying Fourth Amendment principles in the digital age, “we would be happy to work with the Subcommittee on drafting legislation that protects the privacy rights of Americans,” the ACLU letter said.

The letter was signed by Murphy, Steinhardt, and Gregory T. Nojeim, legislative counsel with the ACLU’s Washington National Office, who testified at the April 6 hearing.

In recent related developments, the ACLU has criticized other government surveillance schemes, including a global electronic surveillance system — known by the code name of “Echelon” — that is capturing satellite, microwave, cellular and fiber-optic communications worldwide.

Every month, you'll receive regular roundups of the most important civil rights and civil liberties developments. Remember: a well-informed citizenry is the best defense against tyranny.

Learn More About the Issues in This Press Release