FBI Given Deadline on 'Carnivore' Issues

W A S H I N G T O N, Aug. 3, 2000 -- A federal judge gave the FBI 10 days to respond to a privacy group’s request for information about the government’s “Carnivore” e-mail surveillance system.

The Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center is seeking documents and software concerning the inner workings of Carnivore, which is designed to monitor and capture e-mail going to or from people under criminal investigation.

The privacy group had asked the FBI to grant expedited review of its request filed under the federal Freedom of Information Act. The FBI agreed to grant such review.

But EPIC lawyer David L. Sobel told U.S. District Judge James Robertson the FBI’s promise to act “as soon as practicable” was too open-ended.

Was the Court Order Moot?

Government lawyer Lisa Barsoomian contended the group’s request for a court order was moot because the FBI had agreed to expedite its review.

Robertson said, “I do not consider the Freedom of Information Act to be a vehicle for getting access to government documents in real time through litigation.”

However, he directed the FBI to report within 10 days on when it would begin producing any documents that must be provided under the freedom of information law.

After the hearing, Sobel called the judge’s action “a very good result.”

Similar to a Wire Tap

Carnivore devices are installed at a suspect’s Internet service provider to scan the addressing information coming from or going to a suspect’s computer.

Privacy and civil liberties groups have raised concerns about the tool, and some members of Congress have said they will work on legislation to rein in Carnivore.

At a congressional hearing last month, FBI officials defended Carnivore as an investigative tool similar to a telephone wiretap, saying it is used only with proper legal authorization. FBI officials objected to making information about Carnivore public on grounds it could allow people to undermine the system.