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What is Carnivore?

By R. Kayne
Updated May 16, 2024
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Carnivore is a proprietary software program formerly used by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to surreptitiously intercept emails and Internet traffic. Its publicly stated purpose was to collect incriminating evidence against child pornographers, suspected terrorists, online fraud and other crimes. In 2005, it was widely reported that Carnivore was replaced by commercially available software. Carnivore was purportedly used to monitor traffic on some Internet Service Provider’s (ISP) servers between the late 1990s and 2005. Though the government has been reluctant to discuss the particulars of Carnivore, some facts have been fairly well established.

Carnivore was a “packet sniffer” designed to read headers on passing packets of information. Headers include sender/receiver information, among other details. By scanning all passing packets on an ISP server, Carnivore could utilize a filtering system to automatically copy and log any packets that matched certain criteria. The criteria, based on identification, could target either some or all of a subject’s online communications. Data packets that did not trigger the filter would simply pass through unprocessed.

News of Carnivore eventually leaked to meet a negative public response. In statements to the press, Donald Kerr, Assistant Director of the FBI, stressed that the FBI follow protocols that first require a subpoena or warrant based on reasonable suspicion, before trapping an individual’s online communications. Even then, a warrant might be limited to specific emails or certain websites. However, assurances did little to quell public concerns, particularly those of privacy advocates.

Critics of Carnivore argued that its implementation in monitoring all traffic packets on a server or network could be too easily misused or abused to impinge on law-abiding citizens’ right to privacy. Add to this a lack of oversight of the Carnivore program, as the very nature of the FBI precludes independent oversight. These concerns remain today.

Carnivore is a third generation program, with an earlier incarnation (1997-1999) called Omnivore. Once Carnivore received such negative press, the FBI changed the name of the electronic wire-tapping program once again to the less threatening DSC-1000. The acronym reportedly stands for “Digital Collection System.”

DSC-1000 is actually a suite of three programs, of which Carnivore is one. The other two programs are Packeteer and CoolMiner. Though there was never official word on the functions of Packeteer or CoolMiner, it’s generally believed that Carnivore trapped data packets, Packateer reassembled them, and CoolMiner ran analysis on the resulting information. The suite is collectively known as the DragonWare Suite.

If some lawmakers have their way, packet sniffers may soon become unnecessary for law enforcement. The U.S. government is moving towards legally requiring ISPs to retain all data on all individuals for up to two years. This proposal, formally known as “data retention,” is also commonly referred to as ISP snooping. If ISP snooping becomes law, every user’s online activities, including emails, websites visited, programs downloaded, and other communications, will become part and parcel of a massive database for law enforcement use.

While privacy advocates oppose data retention on many grounds, the European Union passed similar laws in December 2005, expected to go into effect in 2008. With the prospect of having such massive databases with such detailed information on each and every citizen’s online history, the potential for security breaches and abuses are staggering. Some even argue that if there is anything positive to say about data retention, it might be only that it makes Carnivore look tame.

EasyTechJunkie is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By anon244448 — On Feb 01, 2012

Nice article. It helped me understand the terms clearly.

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