Report: FBI Turning to Cybercriminal Tactics to Spy on "Suspects"
August 2, 2013 7:10 PM
Microphone and camera activating malware are allegedly employed by the FBI
The Wall Street Journal
is citing sources within the
U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation
(FBI), as well as former agents in claims that the federal law enforcement agency is
taking up tactics typically used by criminals
spy on suspects
I. ACLU, EFF Riled by FBI Using Criminal Tactics
The agency is reportedly both actively developing
its own malware
and purchasing tools from the private sector to use in investigations that officials reportedly said include organized crime, child pornography, and counterterrorism cases. The agency reportedly avoids using these tools on the cybercriminals it investigates, fearing they will discover and publicize them.
Among the tools believed to be in use by the agency are malware that runs in the background and can be used to
remotely activate the microphone
and camera on the suspect's smartphone, if it runs Google Inc.'s (
Android operating system
, or on a personal computer running Microsoft Corp.'s (
) Windows operating system.
alleges the FBI is using"criminal" [Image Source: WSJ]
These techniques have been under scrutiny by the
American Civil Liberties Union
Electronic Frontier Foundation
(EFF) for the last couple of years, in part due to details discovered in resume postings from programmers who claimed to have worked as contractors developing malware for the FBI. A source claims, "[The FBI] hires people who have hacking skill, and they purchase tools that are capable of doing these things. When [the FBI uses these tools], it's because [it doesn't] have any other choice."
The sources hinted that the malware is "delivered to computers and phones through email or Web links" -- making these efforts spear phishing campaigns of sorts. In other cases agents manually target suspects with physical attacks, by plugging thumb drives with malware on them into their computers if they leave them unoccupied in public locations.
The FBI alleges uses infected websites and malicious email links to infect targets with malware. [Image Source: Wired]
After the data is mined, a "screening team" reportedly sanitizes it, extracting any "relevant data" to the case and deleting any other captured information.
II. A Brief History of FBI Malware Ops
Here's what is known publicly:
1999: Accused mobster Nicodemo Scarfo Jr. is
by FBI keylogger
Mr. Scarfo was using PGP (Pretty Good Privacy)
Physical keylogger attached to PS/2 style keyboard was installed with warrant
Suspect's passwords were used to decrypt files, providing incriminating evidence
2000: "Carnivore" outed in
[Image Source: Spyworld.fr]
Malware used to monitor network traffic in Windows
Similar to WildPackets' EtherPeek
Could collect email message contents [
Was renamed DSC1000 as more capabilities were built up [
2007: "Magic Lantern" malware
Euphemised as "computer and internet protocol address verifier," or CIPAV
2009: "Remote Operations Unit"
Is responsible for FBI malware, hacking efforts
Part of "Operation Going Dark"
Based in Quantico, Virg.
2011: "Web Bugs"
Developed prior to 2005
Used in 2007 to catch a Washington State suspect making bomb threats
2013 (April): Judge
[Scribd] FBI request to use suspect's camera
FBI proposed planting malware on suspect's computer
Judge reject request, writing that more data was needed on how the agency planned to remove privacy risks of innocent people the suspect was interacting with.
The FBI spying is believed to much less sweeping than the
U.S. National Security Agency
(NSA) campaign, which taps into
99 percent of American's phone locations and associated metadata
, as well as
millions of Americans' chats and emails
. Still, civil liberties advocates still aren't happy with the FBI using malware, even if it's more selective in doing so. Comments
, principal technologist at the ACLU, "People should understand that local cops are going to be hacking into surveillance targets."
III. Growing Number of Private Firms Cell "Cybercrime" Tools to the FBI
Mark Eckenwiler, the former
U.S. Department of Justice
(DOJ) federal criminal surveillance law senior counsel who left in Dec. 2012 to join Seattle, Wash. corporate law firm
Perkins Coie LLP
as a senior counsel, argues that in his perspective it depends on the kind of data you're collecting. He tells the
that metadata (e.g. websites visited, email headers, etc.) is not believed to meet the criteria of the subject's property and hence law enforcement can seize it without warrant (the NSA does this on a massive scale). Metadata can be used to track an individual's location and whom they're communicating with.
By contrast, he argues that short-term malware-aided video, audio, key-logging, or screengrab surveillance requires a stricter standard -- a warrant. And he says that long-term surveillance with these tactics meets an even higher bar, requiring a more in depth warrant request. A current DOJ source says the tools are used "on a case-by-case basis."
The FBI is allegedly buying keyloggers and other common "cybercrime" tools from specialist firms. [Image Source: Tech Crazy]
Among the companies the FBI reportedly buys its spy tools from include:
Gamma International UK Ltd.
Specializes in tools to spy on Skype and other VoIP services
Sold tools to Syrian and Egyptian gov'ts to help them crack down on dissidents
Advertises having "0 day exploits" (utilizing vulnerabilities not known by the maker of the affected software) for Microsoft's Internet Explore browser
Provides suite of mobile and PC monitoring malware
Opened sales office in Maryland in 2012
Telesoft Technologies Ltd.
Specialized in tools to simultaneously intercept "tens of thousands" of cell phone conversations on a network
Net Optics Inc.
Real-time monitoring of cell phone networks
Vupen Security SA
Sells keyloggers, screengrabbers, and other tools
It's likely we'll hear more on this issue in the future as the leaks and controversy over government spying and surveillance -- both with warrant and warrantless -- continue.
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