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Home > Privacy and Government > Government Threats to Privacy > Surveillance > Carnivore


"Carnivore" is a specialized computer developed by the FBI and equipped with software that can scan Internet traffic at extremely high speed. It attaches to the systems of Internet service providers (ISPs) and can be used either legitimately, to observe Internet use that is subject to a valid search warrant, or illegitimately to observe the behavior of everyone using a particular ISP.

When it first came to light, Carnivore appeared to be used only to scan e-mail traffic. It appears, however, that current or planned versions of Carnivore can reconstruct Web pages viewed by the subject of surveillance and capture voice-over-Web communications.

The major concern with Carnivore is that there are few ways to ensure that government investigators will use it only for legitimate purposes and within legitimate bounds. The FBI has taken halting steps to reassure Congress and the public that Carnivore will not invade citizens' privacy, but the most respected independent institutions have been unwilling to assist the FBI.

If it is to be used at all, the Carnivore system should be made subject to strict controls and independent monitoring. At this point, neither of these conditions exist.

ISPs should not be conscripted as the deputies of law enforcement agents. This places the costs of investigations on ISPs and Internet users rather than the public fisc, and it may cause consumers to distrust and resent their ISPs. Consumers should educate themselves by asking their ISPs the following questions:

  1. Has the FBI ever asked to install Carnivore (or EtherPeek, or any similar system)?
  2. Has Carnivore (or a similar system) ever been installed on their facilities?
  3. Is Carnivore (or a similar system) now installed on their facilities?
  4. If yes to 1. or 2., what was the ISP's response? Did the ISP offer to obtain the information under court order so that Carnivore would not be necessary? Did the ISP retain counsel to fight such a broad search in the courts, and appeal it to the highest level?
  5. If yes to 2. or 3., what steps did the ISP take to assure that the privacy of its users would be protected? Did the ISP gain access to Carnivore's source code to verify FBI claims? Did the ISP check the information FBI obtained from the Carnivore machine, either remotely or through physical collection on recordable media?
  6. If yes to 2. or 3., is the ISP aware of any other capabilities FBI might have installed?
  7. If FBI or any other government agency gains or attempts to gain access to all user traffic information on the ISP, will the ISP inform its users? Under what circumstances would the ISP inform its users of unwarranted monitoring by investigators?
In light of its unseemly original name, the FBI has begun calling Carnivore "DCS 1000." "DCS" is short for "digital collection system."


Snoopy Carnivore Bites Off More Than We Might Choose, by Sonia Arrison, Pacific Research Institute (December 14, 2000)

Final Carnivore Report Offers No New Answers, House Majority Leader Dick Armey (December 14, 2000)

Independent Technical Review of the Carnivore System Final Report, IIT Research Institute (December 8, 2000)

Comments on the Carnivore System Technical Review, Steven M. Bellovin, AT&T Laboratories; Matt Blaze, AT&T Laboratories; David Farber, University of Pennsylvania; Peter Neumann, SRI International; Eugene Spafford, Purdue University CERIAS (December 3, 2000)

Letter to Carnivore Review Panel from David Sobel, Electronic Privacy Information Center (December 1, 2000)

Comments Regarding Carnivore Review Team Draft Report, Barry Steinhardt and Christopher Chiu, American Civil Liberties Union

Draft Report: Independent Technical Review of the Carnivore System, IIT Research Institute (November 17, 2000)

Yahoo! Carnivore’s on the Menu by Sonia Arrison, Pacific Research Institute (October 2000)

Letter on the Carnivore Review, House Majority Leader Dick Armey (October 19, 2000)

Another Week, Another FBI Embarrassment, post to the Interesting People list (October 6, 2000)

Search Warrants for Online Data Soar by Will Rodger, (July 28, 2000)

The Fourth Amendment and Carnivore Statement of the Electronic Frontier Foundation Before the Subcommittee on the Constitution of the Committee on the Judiciary United States House of Representatives (July 28, 2000)

Stop Carnivore Letter from Congressional Leaders to Attorney General Janet Reno (July 27, 2000)

The Fourth Amendment and the Internet Testimony before the Subcommittee on the Constitution, U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary by Robert Corn-Revere, Hogan & Hartson (July 24, 2000)

Comments? (Subject: Carnivore)

[updated 04/17/02]

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