Carnivore bites off too much

Two years ago, the FBI unleashed Carnivore against Osama bin Laden's terrorist network, but the Internet spyware intercepted so much unrelated e-mail that the FBI stopped using it and might have destroyed information it collected related to the terrorists.

An internal FBI memo sent in April 2000 complained that when the spyware was used a month earlier to intercept al Qaeda e-mail messages, Carnivore acted more like an omnivore.

"The FBI software not only picked up the e-mails under the electronic surveillance [order] but also picked up e-mails on noncovered targets," said the memo, which was sent to Marion "Spike" Bowman, the FBI's associate general counsel. "The FBI technical person was apparently so upset that he destroyed all the e-mail take," including the e-mail messages the FBI was permitted to intercept, the memo said.

Intercepting messages not covered by court authorization would have violated federal wiretap laws, according to the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which obtained the memo through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.

David Sobel, general counsel for the center, said the memo and other information released by the FBI "confirm what many of us have believed for two years — Carnivore is a powerful but clumsy tool that endangers the privacy of innocent American citizens."

FBI documents show that its officials also worried that "the improper capture of data" by Carnivore could "seriously 'contaminate' ongoing investigations."

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