Select your localized edition:

Close ×

More Ways to Connect

Discover one of our 28 local entrepreneurial communities »

Be the first to know as we launch in new countries and markets around the globe.

Interested in bringing MIT Technology Review to your local market?

MIT Technology ReviewMIT Technology Review - logo

 

Unsupported browser: Your browser does not meet modern web standards. See how it scores »

{ action.text }

Watch What You Type

Another government snooping technology that has been the subject of controversy since long before September 11 is Carnivore. Comprising a set of programs in development by the FBI since 1996, Carnivore is devised to intercept data traffic sent over the Internet to assist federal authorities in criminal investigation. According to the FBI, Carnivore is installed only with the cooperation of an Internet service provider and after obtaining appropriate judicial approval to track e-mail, instant messages and Web search trails. And the system inspects only those communications that are legally authorized for interception.

That, at least, is the theory. Civil liberties organizations such as the ACLU, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Electronic Privacy Information Center worry Carnivore could be used to monitor much more than that.
To counter that suspicion, the U.S. Department of Justice hired Chicago-based IIT Research Institute to perform the only testing of Carnivore permitted outside government agencies. According to IIT’s report, published last December, Carnivore works much like the commercial network diagnostic programs-called “sniffers”-that are used to monitor corporate networks, and runs on nothing more than an average personal computer.

After securing the proper warrants, the FBI will approach an Internet service provider to attach a Carnivore-loaded PC to its internal cabling. When plugged into a hub, the collection computer sees all data packets going by. It then copies only those packets that match settings prescribed by the FBI and approved by court order. Agents can view the captured packets in two different modes. In so-called pen mode, the system displays only information that identifies the sender and the intended recipient-numerical Internet addresses and e-mail names-and subject lines. In “full mode,” the agent can access not just this address information but also the entire contents of the message.

Once Carnivore has been installed at the Internet service provider, it is controlled remotely, according to the IIT report. The collection computer is connected to an analog voice line installed specifically for the particular tap. The intercepted data are stored on a two-gigabyte disk, which is then taken back to FBI laboratories for analysis. The data packets-broken bits of e-mail messages, Web pages and any other form of data sent across the Internet-can then be rebuilt and reviewed.

While Echelon and Carnivore are the most infamous intelligence collection tools, they are not the only ones, however. Government skunk works are constantly cooking up new tools to assist in covert surveillance operations. These include other quasi-legendary projects like Tempest, the code word for a number of surveillance technologies that can capture data displayed on computer screens by picking up electromagnetic emissions from the internal electron beams that create the images.

Every once in a while, the intelligence community opens its cloak to show off some of its tricks. Last March, for example, Larry Fairchild, director of the CIA’s office of advanced information technology, brought a group of reporters into the basement of the agency’s headquarters in Langley, VA. There, he demonstrated two programs deemed safe for public consumption: Fluent and Oasis.

Fluent performs computer searches of documents written in different languages. An analyst types in a query in English, just as if he or she were using a garden-variety search engine like Google. The software fishes out relevant documents in a number of foreign languages-including Russian, Chinese, Portuguese, Serbo-Croatian, Korean and Ukrainian-and then translates them into English.

Oasis converts audio signals from television and radio broadcasts, such as those from Qatar-based al-Jazeera, into text. It distinguishes accents, whether the speaker is male or female, and whether one voice is different from another of the same gender. The software then generates a transcript of those transmissions, identifying which voice uttered which statements. While Oasis can today comprehend only English-language programs, the CIA is developing versions that work in Chinese and Arabic, among other languages. Oasis can reportedly process and analyze a half-hour broadcast in as little as 10 minutes, as opposed to the 90 minutes that the task typically takes for an analyst working without the software.

0 comments about this story. Start the discussion »

Tagged: Communications

Reprints and Permissions | Send feedback to the editor

From the Archives

Close

Introducing MIT Technology Review Insider.

Already a Magazine subscriber?

You're automatically an Insider. It's easy to activate or upgrade your account.

Activate Your Account

Become an Insider

It's the new way to subscribe. Get even more of the tech news, research, and discoveries you crave.

Sign Up

Learn More

Find out why MIT Technology Review Insider is for you and explore your options.

Show Me