A technical glitch in the e-mail tapping system used by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) hampered an investigation apparently linked to Osama bin Laden and raises privacy concerns, a privacy watchdog group said Tuesday.
The system, Carnivore, was supposed to capture e-mail from the target of the investigation, but also saved messages from other individuals, according to an FBI memo made public Tuesday by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), which obtained the memo under the Freedom of Information Act.
"The software was turned on and did not work correctly," the memo, dated April 5, 2000, states. An "FBI technical person was apparently so upset that he destroyed all" saved e-mail messages, including the ones related to the investigation, according to the memo.
The e-mail tap was being used by the FBI's International Terrorism Operations Section UBL unit, which according to EPIC refers to Osama bin Laden, who is often referred to in government documents as Usama.
The FBI, in other now public documents written the following week, said that e-mail surveillance with Carnivore could lead to "improper capture of data" and that "unauthorized interceptions not only can violate a citizen's privacy, but also can seriously 'contaminate' ongoing investigations."
The Carnivore e-mail surveillance tool, announced to the public two years ago and officially called DCS1000, works by capturing data packets that pass through the systems of an Internet service provider (ISP). To do this, a box with the Carnivore software is installed on the ISP's network.
Civil libertarians have criticised the system.
EPIC sees the FBI documents as evidence that Carnivore is "a powerful but clumsy tool that endangers the privacy" of citizens. EPIC in a statement calls for the use of the system to be suspended "until the questions surrounding it can finally be resolved."
Nobody at the FBI was immediately available for comment. However, an anonymous bureau official quoted in the online edition of The New York Times said that Carnivore in this particular case gathered too much information because it was not set up right, and that the e-mail messages that the memo said had been deleted were recovered.