This story was written by Keith Dawson for the Industry Standard's Media Grok email newsletter. It is archived here for informational purposes only because The Standard's site is no more. This material is Copyright 1999-2001 by Standard Media.

Trust Us, We're the Government
Jul 25 2000 12:00 AM PDT

The House Judiciary Committee held hearings on the FBI's recently revealed Carnivore device for sniffing e-mail, and the press ate up the story.

Carnivore has been installed at ISPs 25 times in the last two years, FBI and Department of Justice representatives testified. It can be configured to capture only "to" and "from" information for a particular suspect's e-mail, or to record entire messages. The FBI downplayed Carnivore's potential for abuse, insisting that it uses the system only when authorized by a court order.

But at least five news stories spotlighted the testimony of another witness, the ACLU's Barry Steinhardt: "Carnivore is roughly equivalent to a wiretap capable of accessing the contents of the conversations of all the phone company's customers."

The ACLU has filed a Freedom of Information Act request for access to Carnivore's source code. At the hearing, the FBI proposed showing the system's blueprints to an independent panel of university experts. ZDNet's Mary Jo Foley revealed that the FBI plans to release some Carnivore specs to either the San Diego Supercomputer Center or NASA within the next few months.

Most outlets pointed out the skepticism on Capitol Hill. MSNBC referred to the committee members as "skittish," and ZDNet called the lawmakers' reception "skeptical and at times downright hostile." Several outlets chose as the hearing's characteristic quote the sentiment expressed by U.S. Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Ala.: "The potential for abuse here is tremendous."

In a separate ZDNet story, Robert Lemos supplied a bit of analysis on the FBI's use of telephone-era laws to extend wiretapping capabilities to the Internet. There, Rep. Bachus said, "I think what we have here is that technology has outrun the law."

The Wall Street Journal ran stories by Ted Bridis yesterday and today. Bridis alone noted an FBI announcement of a new, supposedly tamper-proof auditing mechanism to give judges oversight of Carnivore deployments.

MSNBC's Brock Meeks turned in the most extensive overage of the day at 36 paragraphs. Read MSNBC if you want the gearhead details of Carnivore's workings. Meeks seems to be the only reporter to have picked up on the fact that the FBI is developing a wide range of snooping tools aimed at other Net traffic in addition to e-mail. Meeks also reported on a remote-access function in Carnivore and got a security expert to speculate on the consequences if a hacker gains access to a working Carnivore box. - Keith Dawson

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