FCC mulls Carnivore and wireless

Congress is pondering legislation that could rein in Carnivore, but it is up to the Federal Communications Commission to decide during the coming weeks whether the Internet snooping technology will spread to wireless communication.

The FCC must decide whether to extend a Sept. 30 deadline set for the wireless Internet industry to develop less intrusive methods for law enforcement agencies to use when intercepting e-mail and text messages sent via the Internet from wireless devices.

If no extension is granted, Carnivore is likely to be adopted as the wireless "wiretapping" technology of choice, Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (CTIA) officials wrote in a letter seeking an extension of the deadlin

The FBI says it needs Carnivore because the nation's communication networks are routinely used in the commission of serious crimes, including espionage, drug trafficking and organized crime. But the crime-fighting agency's officials say they use Carnivore sparingly — about 28 times last year, and always with a court order authorizing a specific type of information interception.

The prospect of Carnivore roaming the wireless realm has privacy advocates gnashing their teeth.

Developed by the FBI, Carnivore—which now officially carries the less biting name of DCS1000—intercepts Internet e-mail traffic and screens it for messages sent by criminal suspects. But unlike more conventional electronic surveillance that focuses on specific suspects, Carnivore looks at everyone's e-mail.

That capability has caught the attention of privacy advocates, including House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas), who said in a speech this summer, "The potential for abuse of a system that offers agents access to everyone's electronic transactions is too great to ignore."

Armey said Carnivore seems to violate Fourth Amendment requirements that a specific warrant be issued before searches of correspondence can be conducted.

In July, the House passed legislation requiring Attorney General John Ashcroft and new FBI Director Robert Mueller to provide Congress with detailed reports of Carnivore's use.

Ironically, today's worries about intrusive Internet snooping technology originated when Congress passed the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) in 1994. The act requires telecommunications carriers to modify equipment, facilities and services to ensure that law enforcement agencies can access e-mail and other transmissions when authorized.

The wireless industry has tried to develop methods that would give law enforcement officials access to wireless e-mail and text transmissions, but so far Carnivore is the only available technology, said Michael Altschul, senior vice president and general counsel at CTIA.

There is a "delicate balance" between privacy and the requirement to provide assistance to law enforcement agents, Altschul said. The industry needs more time and guidance to develop surveillance methods that intercept only the communications of targeted suspects, he said.

FBI spokesman Paul Bresson said the bureau has "never proposed or planned to use Carnivore as the solution for CALEA compliance."

The bureau would be especially reluctant while the Justice Department's newly appointed privacy czar, Daniel Collins, conducts a review of privacy matters. There is "much discussion and much interest" in Carnivore during the review, Bresson said.

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