FBI and Computer Hacking: Keeping Up with the Criminals

The Federal Bureau of Investigation has employed a number of programs that utilize hacking tools to delve into the depths of criminal activity. “Going dark,” as it is commonly referred, involves keeping up with criminal suspects through any number of new communications technology, such as encryption tools and email-delivered spyware.

Yes, it may sound like a good James Bond movie, but keeping up with technology is crucial when dealing with criminals in the swiftly advancing computer age.

FBI agents and other U.S. law enforcement officials use hacking techniques to keep tabs on suspects, particularly when regular phone wiretaps are not useful or possible. Federal investigators may install surveillance tools on suspects’ computers by sending the suspect an email with a link or attachment. Once the suspect clicks on the link or opens the attachment, the software is loaded onto the suspect’s computer without his or her knowledge. The software, once on the computer, can gather files from the computer or the user’s cellphone. It may be designed to conduct regular monitoring of the suspect’s emails and can even turn on the computer’s microphone or camera without the suspect’s knowledge.

It is common for the Bureau to use hacking tools in cases involving counterterrorism, child pornography, and organized crime, reports a U.S. official. However, the Bureau does not routinely use hacking tools when investigating hackers, as it is possible that the hacker can identify the software and publicize its existence or technique.

It has been long suspected that the FBI has been employing the use of “web bugs” since at least 2005. Web bugs are capable of gathering a slew of information about the activities of a computer, including the list of programs running and Internet addresses. For example, a web bug was used in 2007 to locate and eventually convict an individual who was emailing bomb threats in Washington State.

U.S. officials say hacking tools are used when other surveillance methods won’t or can’t work.  Although the use of hacking tools and other surveillance technologies have recently been under scrutiny, particularly since it was revealed that the NSA was engaged in data collection, U.S. officials say that any hacking used by law enforcement is targeted and used sparingly.

An FBI group called the Remote Operations Unit is front and center of the Bureau’s hacking efforts. Specially trained agents are called upon to produce and install computer surveillance tools. The FBI now actively employs hackers who are able to write custom surveillance software.

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