FBI releases first Carnivore data

Heavily edited documents show the FBI's reluctance to explain the inner workings of the network sniffer
Written by Robert Lemos, Contributor

The FBI released the first documents about its controversial Carnivore email surveillance software on Tuesday, but more than half of the 750 pages were blacked out and hundreds more were withheld.

The Electronic Privacy Information Centre (EPIC) filed suit in June under the Freedom of Information Act seeking the release of the Carnivore source code, other technical details and legal arguments addressing the potential privacy implications of the technology.

The lack of information contained in the documents, while disappointing, was not unexpected, said David Banisar, staff counsel for EPIC. "Of the pages that they withheld in full, about 160 were source code pages for Omnivore."

"Omnivore" is the FBI code name for an early version of the Carnivore network sniffer, which is based on Sun Microsystems's Solaris operating system. The agency has fought against any requests to open the source code to public scrutiny.

"A lot of it has been generated from vendors' software," said Paul Bresson, a spokesman for the FBI. Such proprietary information has been deemed immune to Freedom of Information Act requests in the past.

While short on actual source code, much of the content released by the FBI spelled out the history of Carnivore's creation. More material is scheduled for release in mid-November.

According to the documents, Carnivore was conceived under the name Omnivore in February 1997 and was replaced by software that ran on Windows NT-based computers in June 1999.

Several performance tests were also released. While most of the data was blacked out, the reports were dated 8 September, apparently indicating that the FBI only recently decided to measure the results.

"Given how new they are, they don't cover things like [privacy] audits or security at all," Banisar said.

Other documents include a discussion of interception of voice-over-IP data and reviews of recovery from attacks and crashes for both systems.

"There is one document that talks very generally about voice-over-IP interception," said Banisar. "It's mostly about what 'voice-over-IP' is. When it gets to the part about what they are doing about it -- those pages are redacted."

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