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FBI’s Controversial ‘Carnivore’ May Soon Expand, Says Group

By Robert O’Harrow Jr.

Federal law enforcement authorities may soon expand the use of a controversial FBI monitoring system to capture e-mail and other text messages sent through wireless telephone carriers, as well as messages from their Internet service providers, according to a telecommunications industry group.

The FBI has been using the system, called Carnivore, for two years, subject to court authorization, to tap into Internet communications, identify e-mail writers online or record the contents of messages. It does so by capturing “packets” of information containing those details.

Civil liberties advocates and some lawmakers have expressed concerns because the system could scan private communication about legal activities of others besides those under investigation. The Justice Department is reviewing the system’s impact on privacy.

Now the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association is warning that authorities could use Carnivore as soon as October to examine messages such as those sent by cellular telephones and other handheld devices. That’s because the industry has been unable to come up with a way to give law enforcement agencies the ability to monitor digital communications as they can the more easily captured analog messages, as required by a 1994 law.

In an Aug. 15 letter to the Federal Communications Commission, Michael Altschul, the association’s senior vice president and general counsel, said its members can’t meet the Sept. 30 deadline for the technology.

Altschul said in an interview that the FBI has told industry officials it would use Carnivore in the absence of another system. “It could well be a huge expansion of the use of Carnivore,” he said.

The FBI said in a prepared statement Thursday: “We have never proposed or planned to have Carnivore used as a solution for ... compliance.” A spokesman said Internet service providers are now so adept at meeting the technical demands of approved surveillance of suspects’ Internet traffic that the FBI has used Carnivore only twice this year.

The spokesman declined to say whether the FBI would use Carnivore -- now known in the agency as DCS1000 -- to capture communications handled by telephone carriers.

Privacy advocates agreed with Altschul that the industry’s technical problems could mean an expansion of Carnivore use. David Sobel, general counsel of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said the FBI has not demonstrated that it can narrowly target the system. That raises the prospect that it will collect information from many people’s communications while searching for a suspect’s communications.

“It opens the door to the collection of communications of people who aren’t even named in (court) orders,” Sobel said.

Law enforcement agencies use two legal methods to collect information about suspects’ communications. Under federal “pen register” procedures, authorities need only say that call information is relevant to an investigation to get court permission to obtain the origin or destination of electronic communication to and from a suspect. Those rules do not allow authorities to capture the content of communication.

But Sobel and Altschul said Carnivore cannot separate address information from the content of a message in a packet, and so authorities must be trusted to weed out data they are not allowed by law to have.