December 9, 2013
G-Men Use Computer Laptop Cameras To Spy On Suspects
Peter Suciu for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
J. Edgar Hoover, founding director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), was notorious for the files he kept on individuals. The information contained within those files was gathered long before today’s digital era, but Hoover would likely be envious of the Bureau’s latest techniques to gather the dirt.Today’s G-Men are now utilizing malware to better monitor suspects, The Washington Post reported last Friday.
According to the paper, a suspect known as “Mo” – a man believed to have ties with the Iranian military – had made threats to bomb universities and airports across the United States. Mo had no known residence and no telephone, so traditional surveillance remained difficult. Investigators instead turned to malware.
The FBI’s elite hacker squad designed malicious software that was to be delivered via Mo’s Yahoo! email account. With this the FBI hackers could gather a plethora of information, including the web sites he visited and, more importantly, tip off the investigators to the location of the computer(s) he used.
The method of delivery works much the same way most computers are infected with malware, through a common phishing attack. In this case it would be delivered to any computer Mo used when he clicked on a link that was sent to his inbox.
While seemingly basic, this advanced surveillance has been dubbed the “network investigative techniques,” and it has apparently been used when authorities have had difficulty tracking suspects who are most adept at covering their online tracks.
What is more notable about this investigation is the malware used could even be used to turn on a webcam – thus helping the FBI get a true picture of Mo – without the suspect being made aware he was being seen. The malicious software the FBI was using could turn on the webcam without its indicator light being switched on.
The legality of this type of surveillance is now in question, as online surveillance could push the boundaries of the Constitution’s limits on searches and seizures, especially as it could be used to gather a broad range of information that may not be directly tied to any crime.
The Post noted critics have compared it to a physical search in which the entire contents of one’s home are seized, not just the items that are linked to a particular offense. While a federal magistrate in Denver did approve sending the surveillance software to Mo’s computer last year, not all the requests are apparently so welcomed in the US courts.
The Post reported a plan to send surveillance software to another suspect in a different case was rejected, and the federal magistrate in Houston ruled it was “extremely intrusive,” and moreover could violate the Fourth Amendment.
“You can’t just go on a fishing expedition,” Laura K. Donohue, a Georgetown University law professor who reviewed three recent court rulings on FBI surveillance software, including one involving Mo, told the Washington Post. “There needs to be a nexus between the crime being alleged and the material to be seized. What they are doing here, though, is collecting everything.”
Although sources told the Post that the FBI only utilizes this technique sparingly, some critics warn we are heading into untested waters.
“We have transitioned into a world where law enforcement is hacking into people’s computers, and we have never had public debate,” Christopher Soghoian, principal technologist for the American Civil Liberties Union, told the Post. “Judges are having to make up these powers as they go along.”
Neither the FBI nor the Justice Department commented on this particular case or the surveillance techniques used in pursuit of Mo.