I just read this article by Robert X. Cringley:
Original Article: http://www.pbs.org/cringely/pulpit/pulpit20000713.html
This scene of the skeptical Kirk flashed in my mind this week as I
read about Carnivore, the FBI's system for reading the e-mail of bad
guys. Carnivore is a sealed box that is installed at the network
operations center of an Internet Service Provider. It filters packets,
finds e-mail going to and from identified criminals, and saves that
e-mail for later decryption and analysis. What bothers the Internet
Service Providers is they have no control over the Carnivore box,
and no way of protecting the privacy of all the customers who aren't
drug lords or escaped felons. What bothers the American Civil
Liberties Union is the likelihood that individuals will not only lose
right to privacy, but lose it in a new and insidious way.
What bothers me is the damned box. Why would the FBI need a
box? Here's all the FBI will say about Carnivore. It sits on the
network at the ISP, is PC-based, is "a kind of a sniffer," identifies
and saves packets associated with suspected criminals, is installed
under a court order, and doesn't itself act as a decryption device.
There are supposed to be around 20 Carnivore boxes, and they
have been in use since early this year. You don't need a sealed box
to do any of these tasks, most of which are already being done for
completely legal reasons right inside the router at every ISP.
Routers look at every packet, determine what type of packet it is,
where it is coming from and where it is going to, then the router
delivers the packet to its intended destination. This is what routers
do. Adding the Carnivore task is a simple matter of blind copying
every packet to or from a bad guy to a third address at the J. Edgar
Hoover FBI Building in Washington, DC. It's at most a few lines of
code and requires no additional hardware.
So why the box?
The probable reason is because cops like to be in control. They
LIKE boxes, like delivering them in unmarked cars, like the satisfying
click of the RJ-45 connector as it slides home. Maybe they don't
know that it could all be done without a box. Heck, it IS being done
without a box all the time, and that's where the ACLU is missing the
point. Sniffers have been running on networks ever since Harry Saal
invented the device. Every packet at every ISP already goes through
a sniffer at least part of the time. An ISP could do at any time what
we fear the FBI might do with Carnivore read the e-mail and follow
the surfing habits of every pretty blonde customer. Good ISPs,
which is to say nearly all ISPs don't do this, of course, but it
So why doesn't the FBI just get a court order making the ISP do the
dirty work? That's what the ISPs wonder, too, especially since that's
how phone taps are handled. Cops don't really climb poles and
attach alligator clips to hear phone calls. That's all done at the
central office by telephone company technicians.
The FBI, through the use of Carnivore, is trying to grab a little more
power. And by doing it themselves with Carnivore, the FBI doesn't
have to reveal the identity of the bad guy or extent to which it is
using the box. Yeah, right.
But wait, it gets worse. There are aspects of this case that the
ACLU hasn't even considered. The Carnivore boxes are what's
called "co-located" at the ISP. This isn't a rare thing. Many
organizations like to control their own Web or mail servers and so
co-locate them at an ISP. Colocation puts your server closer to the
Internet backbone, eliminates typical T-1 line costs, allows the ISP
to monitor and reboot the server, and usually comes with nifty things
like redundant backbone connections and diesel generators in case
the power goes out. Companies in the co-location business include
well-known names like AT&T, IBM, and Intel. So there are tens of
thousands -- maybe hundreds of thousands -- of computers already
installed just like the FBI installs its Carnivore boxes. What keeps
those co-located computers from being sniffers, too? Nothing at all.
For $300 per month, you too could install your own Carnivore box at
the ISP of your choice. Co-location facilities don't really care what
you do with your co-located server as long as you keep paying the
More technically astute readers may take exception to this idea of
private Carnivore boxes since there are ways to isolate ISP traffic
and keep one box from seeing all the packets on the ISP network.
But at most ISPs, THOSE TECHNIQUES AREN'T USED.
This still leaves us wondering why the FBI insists on this program
that isn't really necessary to do what they say they want to do.
Beyond my overzealous cop theory, the most obvious possibility is
that Carnivore is actually intended to do something else, some
different task than the FBI is saying. Privacy advocates and the
ACLU seem fixated on the idea that the Feds will use Carnivore to
eavesdrop on non-criminals. It makes sense to worry about this,
given past FBI anti-privacy campaigns like the Clipper Chip fiasco of
several years ago that was supposed to have made it possible for
the FBI to tap up to 10 million simultaneous telephone conversations,
even though there are only an average of 1500 court-ordered phone
taps each year in the U.S.
But I have my own theory about Carnivore. From a network
architecture standpoint, the best location for Carnivore is right after
the ISP's router. This puts Carnivore in the path of every packet
entering or leaving the ISP. It's also a major reason why ISPs might
not want to install Carnivore boxes -- it's the network's point of
greatest vulnerability. In this position, Carnivore can act as a
listening and recording device, OR IT CAN ACT AS A SWITCH. If
we ever hear a proposal from the FBI in which it plans to install
Carnivores at all 6000 ISPs in the U.S., we'll be giving the
government the power to do something it can't do right now.
Shut the Internet down.
This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : Mon Oct 02 2000 - 17:34:45 MDT