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Ethical And Legal Concerns Of Carnivore Systems Information Technology Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Information Technology
Wordcount: 2026 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Carnivore was a system implemented by the Federal Bureau of Investigation that was designed to monitor email and electronic communications. Carnivore works by capturing data packets that pass through an internet service provider. A box with the carnivore software is installed at the ISP after agents have obtained a warrant, similar to a wiretap warrant. The software is supposed to be configured to monitor all transmissions coming from and going to a specific Internet Protocol address. That data flows through the ISP in packets, with information intended for other addresses as well.

Its publicly stated purpose was to collect incriminating evidence against child pornographers, suspected terrorists, online fraud and other crimes.

Privacy advocates say they are worried that the software could lead to widespread and random surveillance of other e-mail messages.

The Nation’s communications networks are routinely used in the commission of serious criminal activities, including espionage. Organized crime groups and drug trafficking organizations rely heavily upon telecommunications to plan and execute their criminal activities.

Electronic surveillance has been extremely effective in securing the conviction of more than 25,000 dangerous felons over the past 13 years. In many cases there is no substitute for electronic surveillance, as the evidence cannot be obtained through other traditional investigative techniques.

The Carnivore device provides the FBI with the ability to intercept and collect the communications which are the subject of the lawful order while ignoring those communications which they are not authorized to intercept. This type of tool is necessary to meet the stringent requirements of the federal wiretapping status.

The Carnivore device works much like commercial “sniffer” and other network diagnostic tools used by ISPs every day, except that it provides the FBI with a unique ability to distinguish between communications which may be lawfully intercepted and those which may not. For example, if a court order provides for the lawful interception of one type of communication (e.g., email), but excludes all other communications (e.g., online shopping) the Carnivore tool can be configured to intercept only those e-mails being transmitted either to or from the named subject. Carnivore serves to limit the messages viewable by human eyes to those which are strictly included within the court order. ISP knowledge and assistance, as directed by court order, is required to install the device.

After the FBI has receives judicial approval to initiate Carnivore’s setup, the physical deployment and information retrieval process begins. Specifically, the process consists of four stages: installation, filtration, segregation, and collection.

Stage One: Installing Carnivore.

After the FBI has obtained an authorization to capture information pursuant to one of the statutes, they will turn to the suspect’s ISP to determine if the ISP has the technology to comply with the court order. If the ISP can comply, Carnivore is not used. If the ISP cannot, the FBI engages in a cooperative effort with the ISP technicians to position Carnivore in the network where the suspect’s communication packets can be isolated.

Stage Two: Initial Filtering

Carnivore’s first actions is to “take a glimpse” of the ISP’s traffic, which includes traffic from non-targeted individuals, and filter the packets of “0s” and “1s” at the ISP’s designated speed, usually 40 mega-bits per second or much higher. This initial filtration serves to determine whether the suspect’s identity information, in accordance with the court order, is present in the binary code. If the suspect’s information is present, Carnivore proceeds to Stage Three.

Stage Three: Segregating the Suspect’s information

If Carnivore detects the suspect’s identifying information, the packets of the suspect’s communication are segregated for additional filtration and storage. This filtration and storage is effectuated entirely within the Carnivore device, without known FBI or ISP technician interference.

Stage Four: Following Collection Orders

After the Stage Two filtration and Stage Three segregation occurs, the suspect’s information is filtered again to confirm with the court order. Carnivore checks its programming to see what it should filter and collect for processing, as determine by court order, and discards non retrievable information. For example, Carnivore determines whether the collection is for purposes of pen-trap collection, or the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Once again, this process is done entirely within Carnivore, without known FBI or ISP technician interference.


At the heart of the controversy surrounding the use of tools like Carnivore is a Fourth Amendment issue debated far before the inception of the Internet. When does the gathering or monitoring of information and private conversations by law enforcement becomes an unreasonable search and seizure?

Many groups are not reassured by the government’s assertions that they are and will comply with federal laws governing interception of communications. In a recent unscientific user poll on GigaLaw.com, When asked “Should the FBI be allowed to search e-mail with its new Carnivore program,” 83.66% of respondents answered “No, because the government cannot be trusted.” Only 16.34% of those polled answered, “yes, because it will help fight crime.”

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The government’s use of the Carnivore tool, whatever they choose to call it, is troubling to many. While there is little debate that the Internet is an ever increasingly popular tool for criminals, Americans value their privacy guaranteed by the Constitution, and many see the government’s use of such tools as erosion of these rights. The “trust us, we’re the government” argument does not sit well with those already concerned with the growing number of traditional wiretaps and , consequently, the growing number of private conversations monitored by the government agencies today.

Many privacy advocates question whether Carnivore comports with the Fourth Amendment when processing both the non-suspects’ data as well as the suspects’ information.

Since its inception, Carnivore has been scrutinized as an over-infringing device that “devours” the privacy rights of very every non-targeted individual whose information passes through the systems. While activist groups and individuals have verbally denounced Carnivore and have established websites to collaboratively oppose its use, the two most prominent opponents are the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Privacy Information Center. Many of their concerns are technical in nature, rooted in Carnivore’s general operation-they want to know the systems capabilities, what goes on inside the “black box,” and whether the installation could expose or cause ISPs to malfunction or crash.

Particular areas of ethical concern about Carnivore are as follows

Regulation – Panic exists among the public that the FBI will not be amply regulated. Since the FBI is a powerful part of the regulatory structure of America, it leaves many thinking their power will be abused

Free Speech – Some believe Carnivore monitors all their information regardless of if they have a court order. This may prevent people from using words such as “bomb” in an email.

Privacy – Many fear their day-to-day lives are being monitored and people will be eavesdropping on them, especially if they innocently contact a person already under investigation.

Evolution – If we allow Carnivore to be implemented now, it will be easier to implement a much more invasive version of Carnivore in the future. Carnivore has potential to evolve into something that may violate people, constitutional rights.

Mistakes – If Carnivore makes mistakes “as has allegedly happened in the past”, it is possible that Carnivore could mistakenly filter data from the wrong person and thereby intrude in bystanders privacy.

Targeting Groups – People from ethnic groups have displayed contempt for Carnivore believing that they may be targeted based on ethnicity and religion. It is difficult to assure these groups that Carnivore is potentially correct because of its secrecy and nature.

These issues have made Carnivore more challenging to implement. It is inevitable that an FBI program with the capabilities of Carnivore would be closely scrutinized by the public and privacy groups. There are Web Sites and forums that display people’s trust and advocate against the FBI’s ability to use Carnivore. Many feel Carnivore will be exploited for unethical reasons. People are scared the governments’ true motivation is to spy on citizens.

Ethical Evaluation of FBI’s “Carnivore”

Utilitarian Analysis:

Let’s consider the various consequences of such FBI’s operation. A person allegedly sent an e-mail planning to commit a crime is arrested and charged with attempted planning to harm others. The direct effects of the FBI’s operation are the denial of one person’s freedom (a harm) and an increase in public safety (a benefit). Since entire public is safer and only a single person is harmed, this is good. The FBI’s operation also has indirect effects; it may reduce citizen’s trust in the FBI. Many people believe that if they are doing nothing wrong, they have nothing to hide. Others may become less inclined to provide information to the FBI when requested. Carnivores operations can affect everyone’s e-mail experience. Carnivore operations prove that supposedly private e-mail conversations can actually be made public. If e-mail conversations lack honesty and privacy, people will be less willing to engage in serious conversations. Therefore the FBI’s Carnivore operation is a good thing.

Kantian Analysis:

Kantian focuses on the will leading to the action rather than the results of the action. The will of the FBI is to protect the civilians from criminals. The carnivore software will also filter emails of non suspected criminal. The people sending emails did not consent to having their emails intercepted by the FBI. Hence the decision to require the use of carnivore treats the non suspects as a means to the end of on-line criminals. This analysis leads to conclude that the FBI’s carnivore is morally wrong.

Social Contract Theory Analysis:

In social contract theory morally binding rules are those rules mutually agreed to in order to allow social living. The criminals using the internet to commit crime are breaking their agreement with the internet service provider by communicating criminal activities through the internet. So the FBI usage of the carnivore software does not interfere with the society order of living. This analysis leads to conclude that the FBI’s carnivore usage is the right thing.


Internet technology has evolved exponentially over the past few years, and the future will continue to grow. Requirements are needed to continue accommodate the growing threats made possible by the internet. Carnivore represents a permissible and responsible approach. It enables law enforcement to take one small step to level a playing field currently dominated by criminals who can routinely break the law by using an extremely evasive medium. Carnivore is an appropriate, prudent, and necessary law enforcement mechanism that balances the values of freedom and security.

FBI replaced Carnivore in 2005 with improved commercial software to eavesdrop on network traffic.


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