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FBI's internet snooping exposed

  • Could the Federal Bureau of Investigation have been less than completely forthcoming about its interest in your private Internet communications?
By William Carmichael

Beginning last year, the FBI launched a public relations effort to convince the American public that it wasn't randomly tapping into private Internet communications.

The FBI provided a laundry list of Internet snooping cases, all attributed to "criminal" investigations. But where are the convictions? Who decides who is a 'suspect" who should be spied upon? Who defines the limits?

For example, does "money laundering" include off-shore banking? You don't know if you are talking to an FBI agent in your "chat room." You cannot know if an agent is reading your email or monitoring your use of the Internet.

The public relations campaign followed revelations about a program called "Carnivore," designed to do what the FBI said it wasn't doing.

Now, internal 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.

And, records reveal, one unnamed Internet provider is "co-operating" with the feds in reading private e-mails.

The FBI has used Internet eavesdropping tools to track fugitives, drug dealers, extortionists, computer hackers and suspected foreign intelligence agents, documents obtained by the Associated Press through Freedom of Information Act filings show.

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.

Civil liberties groups contend that Carnivore can collect too much information and put ordinary citizens at risk.

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

For instance, in January 2000, FBI agents got a wide-ranging order to use a computer wiretap in a gambling and money laundering investigation.

An e-mail from an unidentified agent reads: "We got bank accounts, where money was hidden and other information. 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 from the U.S. Marshals Service. The Internet provider involved protested in court but was ordered to cooperate.

According to AP, 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 wire tap foreigners in espionage cases.

The FBI 2002 budget request includes more than $13 million for Internet surveillance, $2.5 million more than this year. Most of the new money would go for research and development.

In justifying the budget, the FBI cybertechnology lab said the number of requests for Internet wiretaps from FBI field offices increased by 1,850 percent from 1997 to 1999. The exact number of requests was not disclosed.