Peter Krapp on 23 Jul 2000 02:54:22 -0000

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<nettime> Omnivore, Carnivore - VEGAN? or what the FBI is up to now

Omnivore, Carnivore - VEGAN?

or what the FBI is up to now

How do you make a paraoiac laugh? I balked at the press coverage of 
the FBI's latest tool (or publicity stunt), CARNIVORE. What most 
published versions of this man-bites-dog story fail to explain is 
that the switch from CARNIVORE's precursor, OMNIVORE, suggests an 
advance from brute-force methods to more direct targeting of the data 
the FBI are after. That, however, is old news.

Behind it is the choice between the untamed carbo-loading of a 
program such as the one often rumoured to be at work behind Echelon, 
the transatlantic surveillance network, and a more finicky device of 
limited appetite and responsible eating rhythms, such as an elegantly 
pared-down chess software which would not run all numbers on all 
possible moves, but focuses on the most likely choices. And to stay 
with that image, the recent exploits of the Deep Thought series 
against champion players may have convinced the FBI labs to look into 
more selective ways to tame internet traffic. Now the news industry 
is busy mocking CARNIVORE's name, following the lead of that fountain 
of news that's fit to print, Janet Reno. Makes me wonder how the next 
version will have been named:

"This just in - the FBI is now testing their new surveillance system, 
VEGAN (Voluntary Electronic Gateway Analytic Network), which they vow 
won't touch anything but the criminal tofu of society."

Gadget lovers have always considered the expert systems attempt to 
mimic human thought processes more elegant and sympathetic, but given 
Moore's law, most neurotic geeks silently assume that this strategy 
is ultimately doomed to succumb to brute force trawling for all 
possible chess moves, or all data flowing through the fangs of the 
FBI. However, the paranoiac will think differently about VEGAN, I 
mean CARNIVORE, suspecting that the debate indicates that the 
government's intent is more of a PR nature, and that the program may 
be a cover for something altogether more hungry.

While an ideal computer would have infinite memory and yield 
instantaneous calculations, the limitations on computing power today 
have to do less with computation than with storage. Compression and 
encryption do little to alleviate the burden. And it certainly seems 
as if any expectations that greater speed of processing will not 
catch up with the increase in traffic. In other words, the sheer 
quantity of traffic on the net goes a long way to keep the secret of 
computer-mediated communication initiated by you. A computer able to 
intercept massive amounts of communication would have to be able to 
store it by recirculating it, yet the fantasy of a computer that 
would contain, and recirculate within itself, the entirety of US net 
traffic must be called what it is - an ancient and unattainable 
fantasy with quasi-religious overtones.

The complexity of what goes on in cyberspace is represented in 
certain more or less efficient codes, which means as sequences of 
simpler parts of its complexity. If lossy compression of my email to 
you whittles it down a bit, even today's very limited encryption of 
net traffic is likely to result in a roughly equivalent increase in 
data flow. Add to this the error detection codes and interface 
protocols - will the FBI invent a measure of information that does 
not rely on representation? No, in order to identify with any 
certainty what is going on, they will incur a computing burden that 
keeps growing incrementally; their only chance to tame the net is to 
create the illusion of competent monitoring. So they let loose a big 
beast, a deus ex machina called CARNIVORE. The invocation of an 
invisible, omniscient entity is truly an old and time-honoured trick. 
Only divine power encompasses everything and renders judgement in an 
instant. But do not dismiss this computing God as dead just yet: just 
because some of us are paranoid does not mean we have no adversaries. 
Paranoia gave birth to the first intelligent agents, one called 
DOCTOR or ELIZA modelled on the behaviour of a psychoanalyst called, 
and the second programmed to imitate a paranoid patient, PARRY. Any 
cultural history of the representation of power will recognize behind 
the interface, the monitor or screen, the "hidden" workings, the 
various protocols for mail, ftp, web, and most, natural language 
parsing. Arguably, monitoring is the essence of the internet, from 
the first screen interfaces to electronic censorship in the workplace 
today. What makes you laugh when you pause for a few seconds to think 
about this most recent PR stunt by the FBI is the ingenuity behind 
this media event: to spin one of the oldest ideas and make it 
news-worthy is truly an awesome ability. What else will they be able 
to re-invent?

	          Peter Krapp

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