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Congress peers deeper into Carnivore

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The powerful Senate Judiciary Committee is looking into popular concerns that the FBI's Carnivore e-mail sniffer captures too much data and would therefore be too easy for overzealous Feds to abuse.

In a 21 November letter to FBI Director Louis Freeh, Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (Republican, Utah) and ranking member Patrick Leahy (Democrat, Vermont) question the Bureau on why Carnivore "was tested to determine if it was capable of intercepting and archiving unfiltered traffic through an ISP, whether Carnivore in fact has that capability, and under what circumstances it could ever be legitimately used to draw on that capability."

Heavily redacted FBI documents obtained by watchdog outfit the Electronic Privacy Information Centre (EPIC) under a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request indicate that Carnivore is in fact capable of more than the Bureau allows.

The Judiciary Committee therefore wishes to see "complete and unredacted copies of the documents produced thus far in response to the FOIA lawsuit together with any other documents related to Carnivore's capability to intercept and archive unfiltered traffic."

According to the most recent test results released - and here we're reading through vast swaths of India ink - Carinvore does a good job of capturing unfiltered data, but suffers from a decided lack of storage capacity.

As for whether the Congressional inquiry will lead to a reigning in of the FBI's new toy, all we can say is that Senator Hatch tends to favour law-and-order measures but retains some conscience regarding privacy and individual liberties, while Senator Leahy never met a law-enforcement surveillance package he didn't like. These tendencies will of course be tempered by the tremendous attention Carnivore is enjoying in the press.

We don't anticipate any legislative action arising from the Judiciary Committee interest, but under the circumstances a hearing might be in order, during which Members can make a show of berating the FBI for the video cameras while sitting on their hands. In other words, the standard treatment whenever government and popular interests are in conflict. ®

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