Radical Software Group (RSG): CARNIVORE


Carnivore is a surveillance tool for data networks. At the heart of the project is CarnivorePE, a software application that listens to all Internet traffic (email, web surfing, etc.) on a specific local network. Next, CarnivorePE serves this data stream over the net to an unlimited number of creative interfaces called "clients." The clients are each designed to animate, diagnose, or interpret the network traffic in various ways.

CarnivorePE is inspired by DCS1000, a piece of software used by the FBI to perform electronic wiretaps. (Until recently, DCS1000 was known by its nickname "Carnivore.") Improving on the FBI software, CarnivorePE features exciting new functionality including: artist-made diagnosic clients, remote access, full subject targetting, full data targetting, volume buffering, transport protocol filtering, and an open source software license.

Carnivore is created by RSG, an all-star collective of computer artists selected from cities around the world, and directed by Alex Galloway, artist, co-founder and co-director of the new media organization, Rhizome, New York. Carnivore is their first public release. To contact the RSG, email rsg@rhizome.org.


Carnivore has recently been exhibited as part of the exhibition Open_Source_Art_Hack at The New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York City, May 2002. It premiered at the Princeton Art Museum in Anxious Omniscience: Surveillance and Contemporary Cultural Practice, January 2002.


Mr. Galloway's artwork is independent of the federal digital-surveillance program, yet it functions in much the same way. But he takes his data from volunteers, and his program generates art, not suspects. Rather than sifting the flow of data which might include personal, potentially sensitive material like Web- page contents and chat-session exchanges in a quest for clues, Mr. Galloway's program converts the electronic information into vibrant images and sounds. By digesting the data and spitting out art instead of incriminating evidence, his "Carnivore" defangs the threat of electronic-privacy violations.


A year in the making, Mr. Galloway's "Carnivore" has gained unintended resonance in the wake of the terrorist attacks. Federal officials are calling for a broader use of the F.B.I.'s system, which has been innocuously renamed DCS-1000. Meanwhile privacy advocates are urging caution, saying that more federal monitoring will encroach upon civil liberties without assuring public safety.


The digital medium allows the rapid creation and immediate distribution of online art. Works responding to the tragedy have already started to appear on the Internet, just as they did in 1999 during the Balkans conflict. But despite the apparent topicality of "Carnivore," Mr. Galloway insisted that he and his collaborators never meant it to be seen as a lightning rod for criticism of the F.B.I.'s system, even though his project seems to undercut the concept of covert surveillance by conducting it openly and prettifying what is unearthed.


"In fact it's a pro-surveillance art work," Mr. Galloway said in a recent telephone interview. "We're making this project because we like surveillance, because we recognize that four out of five computer-art projects need data at their core. Data is the oil paint for digital art, and we've figured out a really good data collection system."


{excerpt from "Cybersnooping For Sounds & Images, Not Suspects," by Matthew Mirapaul, New York Times, October 1, 2001}