FBI's Web Monitoring Exposed

The FBI has used Internet eavesdropping tools to track fugitives, drug dealers, extortionists, computer hackers and suspected foreign intelligence agents, documents show.

The documents, obtained by The Associated Press under the Freedom of Information Act, also detail how the FBI scurried last year to prove it wasn’t “randomly looking at everyone’s e-mail” once its Web surveillance practices came under attack.

The FBI records show the agency used its controversial Carnivore system 13 times between October 1999 and August 2000 to monitor Internet communications, and a similar device, Etherpeek, another 11 times.

Carnivore is a set of software programs for monitoring Internet traffic — e-mails, Web pages, chat room conversations and other signals — going to or from a suspect under investigation. Etherpeek is a commercially available network monitoring program that is far less precise in filtering the information collected.

Collects Too Much Information?

Civil liberties groups contend that Carnivore can collect too much information and put ordinary citizens at risk. Some Internet service providers have raised concerns that since Carnivore’s inner workings are secret, it may damage or slow down their networks while it’s capturing e-mails.

While large portions of the FBI documents are blacked out to protect national security and investigative secrets, they reveal new details about the agency’s Internet surveillance program.

In January 2000, for example, FBI agents got a wide-ranging order to use a computer wiretap in a gambling and money laundering investigation. The wiretap was successful, according to an e-mail to Marcus Thomas, head of the FBI’s cybertechnology lab.

“We got bank accounts, where money was hidden and other information,” reads the e-mail from an unknown agent. “ Some of the data sent … was instrumental in tying several of the conspirators to the crime. One of the conspirators is offering to pay … as part of a plea bargain.”

The following month FBI investigators used Carnivore to catch a fugitive for the U.S. Marshals Service. The Internet provider involved protested in court, but was ordered to cooperate.

Catching Criminals

The 24 instances of Internet surveillance also included four investigations of computer hacking, three drug probes, one extortion investigation and an intellectual property case. The nature of the other cases was not disclosed. The FBI has said that Carnivore has been used in investigations involving national security and attempted domestic terrorism.

One July 2000 e-mail about Carnivore, with the names of both the author and recipient deleted, contains the only reference to national security matters: “We have a pending FISA order there and as soon as we get authority to test our [software] we will be installing it.”

FISA stands for the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which enables the FBI to wiretap foreigners for espionage cases.

Necessary and Essential

E-mails between FBI agents show how determined the bureau was to justify Carnivore’s existence after the disclosure of it last year raised protests from lawmakers and privacy advocates.

In July, the Tampa, Fla., field office sent an e-mail to other agents, including Thomas at the FBI lab, offering a slide show explaining how a militia group used the Internet to communicate.

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