Carnivore is Hungry for Your Privacy, by Michael King

A New Visions Commentary paper published August 2000 by The National Center
for Public Policy Research, 501 Capitol Ct., N.E., Washington, DC 20002, 202/543-4110, Fax 202-543-5975, E-Mail [email protected], Web Reprints permitted provided source
is credited.

Carnivore is hungry, and it’s looking for food.

What is Carnivore? It is a device that the FBI uses to snoop on your e-mail and behavior on the Internet. It is the biggest threat to your privacy that has come down the pike in a long time.

Carnivore is a software/hardware combination, meaning it’s both programming and machine. When installed on an Internet Service Provider’s (ISP) servers, it allows the Feds to spy on personal e-mails at the source. Carnivore scans all incoming and outgoing e-mails, looking for telltale words or names and saving them for law enforcement officials to use later.

A Carnivore set-up can also spy on an individual’s complete use of the Internet: live Internet Relay Chats (IRCs); instant messages like those used on America Online’s Instant Messenger; visits to individual web sites using browsers like Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and Netscape’s Communicator and even individual clicks while a user is connected to the Internet.

Justice Department officials insist that Carnivore will only be used with a court order, and promise that its use will be limited to watching suspected hackers, terrorists and drug dealers. Unfortunately, those of us who are computer hobbyists are often considered hackers by the Feds. As a result, the FBI gets to cast a very big net to catch those they consider to be criminals.

This could give the Feds unfettered carte blanche to look into the lives of anyone with access to the Internet. The FBI admits Carnivore gets to look at millions of messages from literally millions of people just to find a small number from suspected criminals. That’s no different from the Feds going to the local post office and opening up and reading every single piece of mail that travels through the U.S. Postal Service and then sealing it back up so that you don’t know it was opened. It is the same as listening in on every single telephone conversation in the United States – private or not, personal or not and legal or not. In simpler terms, the FBI feels it can treat everyone who uses the Internet – from your children looking at the latest Pokemon game hints to you reading news and sending private business information to co-workers – as common criminals.

Also, with the majority of black Americans finally realizing the importance of joining the technological revolution that’s reshaping our society, Carnivore can inflict some pretty devastating wounds if not kill black interest in the Internet altogether. Carnivore can also cause a real digital divide. Considering racial profiling affects us when we shop and drive, why shouldn’t we fear being singled-out on-line as well? This fear may drive some blacks away from computers and the benefits they bring.

One other thing: how do we know that the information the Feds collect on everyone, even if it is not tied to an ongoing investigation, won’t be used against us in the future? Aren’t we, as a people, guaranteed rights against unlawful and unreasonable search and seizure under the Constitution? I’m certain that the Founding Fathers are collectively turning over in their graves at the Big Brother tactics being used under the guise of law enforcement.

One unidentified ISP has tried to stand its ground against Carnivore. It, however, was mauled in the process. The provider challenged the Fed’s authority to use Carnivore on its servers in court, and was soundly defeated.

Carnivore is still hungry. Who’s next on the menu for its next meal?

The National Center for Public Policy Research is a communications and research foundation supportive of a strong national defense and dedicated to providing free market solutions to today’s public policy problems. We believe that the principles of a free market, individual liberty and personal responsibility provide the greatest hope for meeting the challenges facing America in the 21st century.