NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Privacy And Carnivore

April 13, 2001

The revelation of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Carnivore e-mail surveillance system has caused a debate over where to draw the line between public safety and an individual's privacy. Privacy groups want strict guidelines on what personal information the government can gather and retain.

  • The FBI and the Justice Department insist Carnivore's purpose is to intercept only information it has a right to; but it may be impossible to guarantee untargeted citizens would escape government probing.
  • Carnivore software has the "surgical ability" to spot and collect "to-and-from" information from the e-mail of a criminal target; however, the software scans all e-mails of a target to do this.
  • The FBI claims it doesn't look at the subject line of the e-mails, but it is not known whether the software can exclude that information.

Critics of Carnivore argue that federal agencies' current technology as well as new technologies such as the ability to track cell phone users will erode personal privacy. They contend these agencies currently gather information without a warrant that is constitutionally required.

They are also skeptical of the FBI's promises not to overreach with Carnivore. In 1994 the FBI lobbied for the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, contending it was only seeking to improve its abilities to conduct wiretaps in the age of computers and wireless communications. The FBI explicitly promised not to seek any more surveillance capability than it already had under existing law. However, the Act gave the FBI unprecedented authority to dictate wiretap-friendly technical standards.

Source: Elisabeth Frater, "Law Enforcement: The Carnivore Question," National Journal, September 2, 2000.


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