RSG on Tue, 18 Jun 2002 04:06:19 +0200 (CEST)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> How We Made Our Own "Carnivore"

How We Made Our Own "Carnivore"

	"Disobedience to authority is one of the most natural and
	healthy acts."
	--Empire, Hardt & Negri

Ethernet was invented at the University of Hawaii. Scientists there in
the early 1970s faced a unique problem: How to network different
campuses, each on different islands separated by water. The solution was
to use the free airwaves, to transmit data through the air, or "ether,"
using radio. There were no wires. Like a radio station, each node sent
messages broadly over the sea to other islands. A protocol was developed
to avoid collision between simultaneous communications. Ever since,
Ethernet has been based on an open transmission model. The protocol
translated well to wire-based networks too, and is now the most widely
used local networking protocol in the world.

Since Ethernet is based on an open broadcast model, it is trivial for
listeners to make themselves "promiscuous" and eavesdrop on all
communications, not simply those specifically addressed to them. This
technique is called packet-sniffing and has been used by systems
administrators and hackers alike for decades. Ethernet, sniffers, and
hacking are at heart of a public domain surveillance suite called
Carnivore ( developed by RSG and now used
in a civilian context by many artists and scientists around the world.


Today there are generally two things said about hackers. They are either
terrorists or libertarians. Historically the word meant an amateur
tinkerer, an autodictat who might try a dozen solutions to a problem
before eking out success.[1] Aptitude and perseverance have always
eclipsed rote knowledge in the hacking community. Hackers are the type
of technophiles you like to have around in a pinch, for given enough
time they generally can crack any problem (or at least find a suitable
kludge). Thus, as Bruce Sterling writes, the term hacker "can signify
the free-wheeling intellectual exploration of the highest and deepest
potential of computer systems."[2] Or as the glowing Steven Levy
reminisces of the original MIT hackers of the early sixties, "they were
such fascinating people. [...] Beneath their often unimposing exteriors,
they were adventurers, visionaries, risk-takers, artists...and the ones
who most clearly saw why the computer was a truly revolutionary
tool."[3] These types of hackers are freedom fighters, living by the
dictum that data wants to be free.[4] Information should not be owned,
and even if it is, non-invasive browsing of such information hurts no
one. After all, hackers merely exploit preexisting holes made by
clumsily constructed code.[5] And wouldn't the revelation of such holes
actually improve data security for everyone involved?

Yet after a combination of public technophobia and aggressive government
legislation, the identity of the hacker changed in the US in the mid to
late eighties from do-it-yourself hobbyist to digital outlaw.[6] Such
legislation includes the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986 which made
it a felony to break into federal computers. "On March 5, 1986,"
reported Knight Lightning of Phrack magazine, "the following seven
phreaks were arrested in what has come to be known as the first computer
crime `sting' operation. Captain Hacker \ Doctor Bob \ Lasertech \ The
Adventurer [\] The Highwayman \ The Punisher \ The Warden."[7] "[O]n
Tuesday, July 21, 1987," Knight Lightning continued, "[a]mong 30-40
others, Bill From RNOC, Eric NYC, Solid State, Oryan QUEST, Mark
Gerardo, The Rebel, and Delta-Master have been busted by the United
States Secret Service."[8] Many of these hackers were targeted due to
their "elite" reputations, a status granted only to top hackers. Hackers
were deeply discouraged by their newfound identity as outlaws, as
exemplified in the famous 1986 hacker manifesto written by someone
calling himself[9] The Mentor: "We explore... and you call us criminals.
We seek after knowledge... and you call us criminals."[10] Because of
this semantic transformation, hackers today are commonly referred to as
terrorists, nary-do-wells who break into computers for personal gain. So
by the turn of the millennium, the term hacker had lost all of its
original meaning. Now when people say hacker, they mean terrorist.

Thus, the current debate on hackers is helplessly throttled by the
discourse on contemporary liberalism: should we respect data as private
property, or should we cultivate individual freedom and leave computer
users well enough alone? Hacking is more sophisticated than that. It
suggests a future type of cultural production, one that RSG seeks to
embody in Carnivore.


Bruce Sterling writes that the late Twentieth Century is a moment of
transformation from a modern control paradigm based on centralization
and hierarchy to a postmodern one based on flexibility and

	"For years now, economists and management theorists have
	speculated that the tidal wave of the information revolution
	would destroy rigid, pyramidal bureaucracies, where everything
	is top-down and centrally controlled. Highly trained "employees"
	would take on greater autonomy, being self-starting and self-
	motivating, moving from place to place, task to task, with great
	speed and fluidity. "Ad-hocracy" would rule, with groups of
	people spontaneously knitting together across organizational
	lines, tackling the problem at hand, applying intense computer-
	aided expertise to it, and then vanishing whence they came."[11]

 From Manuel Castells to Hakim Bey to Tom Peters this rhetoric has become
commonplace. Sterling continues by claiming that both hacker groups and
the law enforcement officials that track hackers follow this new
paradigm: "they all look and act like `tiger teams' or `users' groups.'
They are all electronic ad-hocracies leaping up spontaneously to attempt
to meet a need."[12] By "tiger teams" Sterling refers to the employee
groups assembled by computer companies trying to test the security of
their computer systems. Tiger teams, in essence, simulate potential
hacker attacks, hoping to find and repair security holes. RSG is a type
of tiger team.

The term also alludes to the management style known as Toyotism
originating in Japanese automotive production facilities. Within
Toyotism, small pods of workers mass together to solve a specific
problem. The pods are not linear and fixed like the more traditional
assembly line, but rather are flexible and reconfigurable depending on
whatever problem might be posed to them.

Management expert Tom Peters notes that the most successful contemporary
corporations use these types of tiger teams, eliminating traditional
hierarchy within the organizational structure. Documenting the
management consulting agency McKinsey & Company, Peters writes:
"McKinsey is a huge company. Customers respect it. [...] But there is no
traditional hierarchy. There are no organizational charts. No job
descriptions. No policy manuals. No rules about managing client
engagements. [...] And yet all these things are well understood-make no
mistake, McKinsey is not out of control! [...] McKinsey works. It's
worked for over half a century."[13]

As Sterling suggests, the hacker community also follows this
organizational style. Hackers are autonomous agents that can mass
together in small groups to attack specific problems. As the influential
hacker magazine Phrack was keen to point out, "ANYONE can write for
Phrack Inc. [...] we do not discriminate against anyone for any
reason."[14] Flexible and versatile, the hacker pod will often dissolve
itself as quickly as it formed and disappear into the network. Thus,
what Sterling and others are arguing is that whereby older resistive
forces were engaged with "rigid, pyramidal bureaucracies," hackers
embody a different organizational management style (one that might be
called "protocological"). In this sense, while resistance during the
modern age forms around rigid hierarchies and bureaucratic power
structures, resistance during the postmodern age forms around the
protocological control forces existent in networks.


In 1967 the artist Sol LeWitt outlined his definition of conceptual art:

	"In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important
	aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of
	art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made
	beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea
	becomes a machine that makes the art."[15]

LeWitt's perspective on conceptual art has important implications for
code, for in his estimation conceptual art is nothing but a type of code
for artmaking. LeWitt's art is an algorithmic process. The algorithm is
prepared in advance, and then later executed by the artist (or another
artist, for that matter). Code thus purports to be multidimensional.
Code draws a line between what is material and what is active, in
essence saying that writing (hardware) cannot do anything, but must be
transformed into code (software) to be affective. Northrop Frye says a
very similar thing about language when he writes that the process of
literary critique essentially creates a meta text, outside of the
original source material, that contains the critic's interpretations of
that text.[16] In fact Kittler defines software itself as precisely that
"logical abstraction" that exists in the negative space between people
and the hardware they use.[17]

How can code be so different than mere writing? The answer to this lies
in the unique nature of computer code. It lies not in the fact that code
is sub-linguistic, but rather that it is hyper-linguistic. Code is a
language, but a very special kind of language. Code is the only language
that is executable. As Kittler has pointed out, "[t]here exists no word
in any ordinary language which does what it says. No description of a
machine sets the machine into motion."[18] So code is the first language
that actually does what it says-it is a machine for converting meaning
into action.[19] Code has a semantic meaning, but it also has an
enactment of meaning. Thus, while natural languages such as English or
Latin only have a legible state, code has both a legible state and an
executable state. In this way, code is the summation of language plus an
executable meta-layer that encapsulates that language.


Fredric Jameson said somewhere that one of the most difficult things to
do under contemporary capitalism is to envision utopia. This is
precisely why dreaming is important. Deciding (and often struggling) for
what is possible is the first step for a utopian vision based in our
desires, based in what we want.

Pierre LÚvy is one writer who has been able to articulate eloquently the
possibility of utopia in the cyberspace of digital computers.[20]
"Cyberspace," he writes, "brings with it methods of perception, feeling,
remembering, working, of playing and being together. [...] The
development of cyberspace [...] is one of the principle aesthetic and
political challenges of the coming century."[21] LÚvy's visionary tone
is exactly what Jameson warns is lacking in much contemporary discourse.
The relationship between utopia and possibility is a close one. It is
necessary to know what one wants, to know what is possible to want,
before a true utopia may be envisioned.

Once of the most important signs of this utopian instinct is the hacking
community's anti-commercial bent. Software products have long been
developed and released into the public domain, with seemingly no profit
motive on the side of the authors, simply for the higher glory of the
code itself. "Spacewar was not sold," Steven Levy writes, referring to
the early video game developed by several early computer enthusiasts at
MIT. "Like any other program, it was placed in the drawer for anyone to
access, look at, and rewrite as they saw fit."[22] The limits of
personal behavior become the limits of possibility to the hacker. Thus,
it is obvious to the hacker that one's personal investment in a specific
piece of code can do nothing but hinder that code's overall development.
"Sharing of software [...] is as old as computers," writes free software
guru Richard Stallman, "just as sharing of recipes is as old as
cooking."[23] Code does not reach its apotheosis for people, but exists
within its own dimension of perfection. The hacker feels obligated to
remove all impediments, all inefficiencies that might stunt this quasi-
aesthetic growth. "In its basic assembly structure," writes Andrew Ross,
"information technology involves processing, copying, replication, and
simulation, and therefore does not recognize the concept of private
information property."[24] Commercial ownership of software is the
primary impediment hated by all hackers because it means that code is
limited-limited by intellectual property laws, limited by the profit
motive, limited by corporate "lamers."

However, greater than this anti-commercialism is a pro-protocolism.
Protocol, by definition, is "open source," the term given to a
technology that makes public the source code used in its creation. That
is to say, protocol is nothing but an elaborate instruction list of how
a given technology should work, from the inside out, from the top to the
bottom, as exemplified in the RFCs, or "Request For Comments" documents.
While many closed source technologies may appear to be protocological
due to their often monopolistic position in the market place, a true
protocol cannot be closed or proprietary. It must be paraded into full
view before all, and agreed to by all. It benefits over time through its
own technological development in the public sphere. It must exist as
pure, transparent code (or a pure description of how to fashion code).
If technology is proprietary it ceases to be protocological.

This brings us back to Carnivore, and the desire to release a public
domain version of a notorious surveillance tool thus far only available
to government operatives. The RSG Carnivore levels the playing field,
recasting art and culture as a scene of multilateral conflict rather
than unilateral domination. It opens the system up for collaboration
within and between client artists. It uses code to engulf and modify the
original FBI apparatus.

Carnivore Personal Edition

On October 1, 2001, three weeks after the 9/11 attacks in the US, the
Radical Software Group (RSG) announced the release of Carnivore, a
public domain riff on the notorious FBI software called DCS1000 (which
is commonly referred to by its nickname "Carnivore"). While the FBI
software had already been in existence for some time, and likewise RSG
had been developing it's version of the software since January 2001,
9/11 brought on a crush of new surveillance activity. Rumors surfaced
that the FBI was installing Carnivore willy-nilly on broad civilian
networks like Hotmail and AOL with the expressed purpose of intercepting
terror-related communication. As Wired News reported on September 12,
2001, "An administrator at one major network service provider said that
FBI agents showed up at his workplace on [September 11] `with a couple
of Carnivores, requesting permission to place them in our core.'"
Officials at Hotmail were reported to have been "cooperating" with FBI
monitoring requests. Inspired by this activity, the RSG's Carnivore
sought to pick up where the FBI left off, to bring this technology into
the hands of the general public for greater surveillance saturation
within culture. The first RSG Carnivore ran on Linux. An open source
schematic was posted on the net for others to build their own boxes. New
functionality was added to improve on the FBI-developed technology
(which in reality was a dumbed-down version of tools systems
administrators had been using for years). An initial core (Alex
Galloway, Mark Napier, Mark Daggett, Joshua Davis, and others) began to
build interpretive interfaces. A testing venue was selected: the private
offices of at 115 Mercer Street in New York City, only 30
blocks from Ground Zero. This space was out-of-bounds to the FBI, but
open to RSG.

The initial testing proved successful and led to more field-testing at
the Princeton Art Museum (where Carnivore was quarantined like a virus
into its own subnet) and the New Museum in New York. During the weekend
of February 1st 2002, Carnivore was used at Eyebeam to supervise the
hacktivists protesting the gathering of the World Economic Forum.

Sensing the market limitations of a Linux-only software product, RSG
released Carnivore Personal Edition (PE) for Windows on April 6, 2002.
CarnivorePE brought a new distributed architecture to the Carnivore
initiative by giving any PC user the ability to analyze and diagnose the
traffic from his or her own network. Any artist or scientist could now
use CarnivorePE as a surveillance engine to power his or her own
interpretive "Client." Soon Carnivore Clients were converting network
traffic to sound, animation, and even 3D worlds, distributing the
technology across the network.

The prospect of reverse-engineering the original FBI software was
uninteresting to RSG. Crippled by legal and ethical limitations, the FBI
software needed improvement not emulation. Thus 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. Reverse-engineering is not necessarily a simple mimetic
process, but a mental upgrade as well. RSG has no desire to copy the FBI
software and its many shortcomings. Instead, RSG longs to inject
progressive politics back into a fundamentally destabilizing and
transformative technology, packet sniffing. Our goal is to invent a new
use for data surveillance that breaks out of the hero/terrorist dilemma
and instead dreams about a future use for networked data.


[1] Robert Graham traces the etymology of the term to the sport of golf:
"The word `hacker' started out in the 14th century to mean somebody who
was inexperienced or unskilled at a particular activity (such as a golf
hacker). In the 1970s, the word `hacker' was used by computer
enthusiasts to refer to themselves. This reflected the way enthusiasts
approach computers: they eschew formal education and play around with
the computer until they can get it to work. (In much the same way, a
golf hacker keeps hacking at the golf ball until they get it in the
hole)" (

[2] Bruce Sterling The Hacker Crackdown (New York: Bantam, 1992), p. 51.
See also Hugo Cornwall's Hacker's Handbook (London: Century, 1988),
which characterizes the hacker as a benign explorer. Cornwall's position
highlights the differing attitudes between the US and Europe, where
hacking is much less criminalized and in many cases prima facie legal.

[3] Steven Levy, Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution (New York:
Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1984), p. ix.

[4] This slogan is attributed to Stewart Brand, who wrote that "[o]n the
one hand information wants to be expensive, because it's so valuable.
The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the
other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it
out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two
fighting against each other." See Whole Earth Review, May 1985, p. 49.

[5] Many hackers believe that commercial software products are less
carefully crafted and therefore more prone to exploits. Perhaps the most
infamous example of such an exploit, one which critiques software's
growing commercialization, is the "BackOrifice" software application
created by the hacker group Cult of the Dead Cow. A satire of
Microsoft's "Back Office" software suite, BackOrifice acts as a Trojan
Horse to allow remote access to personal computers running Microsoft's
Windows operating system.

[6] For an excellent historical analysis of this transformation see
Sterling's The Hacker Crackdown. Andrew Ross explains this
transformation by citing, as do Sterling and others, the increase of
computer viruses in the late eighties, especially "the viral attack
engineered in November 1988 by Cornell University hacker Robert Morris
on the national network system Internet. [.] While it caused little in
the way of data damage [.], the ramifications of the Internet virus have
helped to generate a moral panic that has all but transformed everyday
`computer culture.'" See Andrew Ross, Strange Weather: Culture, Science,
and Technology in the Age of Limits (New York: Verso, 1991), p. 75.

[7] Knight Lightning, "Shadows Of A Future Past," Phrack, vol. 2, no.
21, file 3.

[8] Knight Lightning, "The Judas Contract," Phrack, vol. 2, no. 22, file

[9] While many hackers use gender neutral pseudonyms, the online
magazine Phrack, with which The Mentor was associated, was characterized
by its distinctly male staff and readership. For a sociological
explanation of the gender imbalance within the hacking community, see
Paul Taylor, Hackers: Crime in the digital sublime (New York: Routledge,
1999), pp. 32-42.

[10] The Mentor, "The Conscience of a Hacker," Phrack, vol. 1, no. 7,
file 3.

[11] Sterling, The Hacker Crackdown, p. 184.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Tom Peters, Liberation Management: Necessary Disorganization for
the Nanosecond Nineties (New York: Knopf, 1992), pp. 143-144. An older,
more decentralized (rather than distributed) style of organizational
management is epitomized by Peter Drucker's classic analysis of General
Motors in the thirties and forties. He writes that "General Motors
considers decentralization a basic and universally valid concept of
order." See Peter Drucker, The Concept of the Corporation (New
Brunswick: Transaction, 1993), p. 47.

[14] "Introduction," Phrack, v. 1, no. 9, phile [sic] 1.

[15] Sol LeWitt, "Paragraphs on Conceptual Art," in Alberro, et al.,
eds., Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999),
p. 12. Thanks to Mark Tribe for bring this passage to my attention.

[16] See Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton: Princeton UP,
1957). See also Fredric Jameson's engagement with this same subject in
"From Metaphor to Allegory" in Cynthia Davidson, Ed., Anything
(Cambridge: MIT Press, 2001).

[17] Friedrich Kittler, "On the Implementation of Knowledge-Toward a
Theory of Hardware," nettime

[18] Kittler, "On the Implementation of Knowledge."

[19] For an interesting commentary on the aesthetic dimensions of this
fact see Geoff Cox, Alex McLean and Adrian Ward's "The Aesthetics of
Generative Code" (

[20] Another is the delightfully schizophrenic Ted Nelson, inventor of
hypertext. See Computer Lib/Dream Machines (Redmond, WA:
Tempus/Microsoft, 1987).

[21] Pierre LÚvy, L'intelligence collective: Pour une anthropologie du
cyberspace (Paris: ╔ditions la DÚcouverte, 1994), p. 120, translation

[22] Levy, Hackers, p. 53. In his 1972 Rolling Stone article on the
game, Steward Brand went so far as to publish Alan Kay's source code for
Spacewar right along side his own article, a practice rarely seen in
popular publications. See Brand, "SPACEWAR," p. 58.

[23] Richard Stallman, "The GNU Project," available online at and in Chris Dibona (Editor),
et al, Open Sources: Voices from the Open Source Revolution (Sebastopol,
CA: O'Reilly, 1999).

[24] Ross, Strange Weather, p. 80.

#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: and "info nettime-l" in the msg body
#  archive: contact: