Tech and crime is a cat-mouse game for the FBI

So the FBI can do some pretty wild surveillance things on your computer. But will they bother with the average person? I doubt it.

A terrorist suspect was under a watchful eye…

FBI’s search for ‘Mo,’ suspect in bomb threats, highlights use of malware for surveillance – The Washington Post.

The FBI’s elite hacker team designed a piece of malicious software that was to be delivered secretly when Mo signed on to his Yahoo e-mail account, from any computer anywhere in the world, according to the documents. The goal of the software was to gather a range of information — Web sites he had visited and indicators of the location of the computer — that would allow investigators to find Mo and tie him to the bomb threats.

Such high-tech search tools, which the FBI calls “network investigative techniques,” have been used when authorities struggle to track suspects who are adept at covering their tracks online. The most powerful FBI surveillance software can covertly download files, photographs and stored e-mails, or even gather real-time images by activating cameras connected to computers, say court documents and people familiar with this technology.

This report details (as best as can be detailed) how the FBI dealt with this obviously dangerous guy. For example, like other hackers, the FBI exploited security weaknesses in computer programs to gain control of users’ machines. People in the know say standard phishing attacks — a link slipped into an e-mail, typically labeled in a misleading way – are the most used tool. By clicking on the link, the suspect’s computer is linked to the FBI site where exploitive software is installed for tracking. Devious. And probably necessary in this internet age. But where is the line?

This is the bit that got the most press coverage:

The FBI has been able to covertly activate a computer’s camera — without triggering the light that lets users know it is recording — for several years, and has used that technique mainly in terrorism cases or the most serious criminal investigations, said Marcus Thomas, former assistant director of the FBI’s Operational Technology Division in Quantico, now on the advisory board of Subsentio, a firm that helps telecommunications carriers comply with federal wiretap statutes.

The ability to remotely activate video feeds was among the issues cited in a case in Houston, where federal magistrate Judge Stephen W. Smith rejected a search warrant request from the FBI in April. In that case, first reported by the Wall Street Journal, Smith ruled that the use of such technology in a bank fraud case was “extremely intrusive” and ran the risk of accidentally capturing information of people not under suspicion of any crime.

I’m not a paranoid person but I also am not a terrorist nor committing a crime, so I have little to fear from FBI wiretaps (or the modern equivalent). Some will say that I am naive and this is dangerous stuff. I concede your point but who really wants to wade through all this cryptozoology and sciencey stuff on my machine anyway…

This will be conspiracy fodder for sure.

  10 comments for “Tech and crime is a cat-mouse game for the FBI

  1. spookyparadigm
    December 8, 2013 at 4:16 PM

    Never minding the usual concerns (violation of rights, guilt by association, stifling of speech through internet history blackmail as per the recent revelations), think about it from a pure economic perspective.

    EU countries have for years accused NSA of colluding with primarily American companies, giving them information from industrial espionage (and I’m sure other countries do the same, it’s just that the US has built with help from the UK and Australia a massive intelligence infrastructure, what used to be known as Echelon).

    With mass spying on all humans (see the story this week on NSA tracking the location of five Billion cell phones), there is no reason to believe that this kind of corruption won’t filter down to the individual level. We’ve already seen the Snowden files (the entire Snowden scandal is a result of the collusion between private industry and intelligence, he was a contractor and is symptomatic of the lax standards that privatizing intelligence in the Rumsfeld years caused. For better or for worse, twenty years ago Edward Snowden would not have been allowed near the data he got not for moral reasons, but for basic professional and security reasons) describe NSA-accessing analysts using captured data to spy on former, current, or desired romantic partners. The potential for abuse of this system for taking advantage of private financial data is just as much there, as with the higher end of industrial espionage.

    I come down somewhere in between the “I haven’t done anything wrong/am boring” and the “OMG” ends of the spectrum. As a middle class secular white guy who is not involved in any substantial activism, I do not particularly fear the planned actions of the state of the sort discussed in the article. Many other people who aren’t breaking the law but unfairly come under suspicion have legitimate fears of such actions, even though these actions are often taken to address legitimate concerns. But even if you think you are boring enough to the typical ends of government agencies, the human factor takes safety off the table. False accusations by personal enemies. Bigoted, irrational, overzealous, sadistic, powertripping, stalking, plain old mean, or any number of other possible descriptors of those given keys to the data. Mistakes. Panics. And so on. And with the keys to the kingdom being handed over to the likes of an obviously egocentric contractor like Snowden, its hard to believe we don’t currently live in an environment that would allow for the prospering of a thousand small-scale but damaging Hoovers.

  2. December 8, 2013 at 4:17 PM

    I’m a wee bit paranoid to start with, but frankly i see no problem if the mythical “them” are monitoring my online perambulations, & hope that the surveillance operators have a good medical scheme & analyst (of psychiatric kind) as my reading of umpteen sites & articles both pro & anti para & weird stuff must confuse the hell out of em. Ditto as i use many defence sites from military worldwide, yet contribute to pro American military sites on Pinterest. Not everyone in the intelligence community is stupid, so if you’re not doing anything provocative or anti social, they’ll leave you alone. Leave the paranoia at the door of the interwebs like your wet & dirty wellies (galoshes, rubbers, boots, – choose your regional preference). Just like the para peeps need the scrutiny of sceptics, we do need national security worldwide. Remember they have actually caught a lot of terrorists (or would bes) porno manipulators, people traffickers, pedos, etc through close monitoring of the web. Don’t worry – even if they seen it they’re not going to tell your mummy what naughty sites you visited or what “bedroom toys” you ordered. Good to know too that many malicious hackers have now turned around & putting their intelligence to good use for detection of terrorists & sexual abusers, etc.

  3. spookyparadigm
    December 8, 2013 at 4:34 PM

    “Don’t worry – even if they seen it they’re not going to tell your mummy what naughty sites you visited or what “bedroom toys” you ordered.”

    As long as you don’t try to become a political activist, lead a union chapter, attack one of their (whoever the particular “they” with access to data is) corporate or political allies, run for office, have a personal grudge with them (see above), and so on.

    That’s where the breathless Alex Jones and others peddling big conspiracy theories actually help the vast army of Little Brothers. Their fantasies are patently absurd, and make anyone who starts talking about oppression and corruption through surveillance look like an idiot. They also weaken the political culture of the society through over-heated rhetoric, which goes hand-in-hand with greater corruption, though for many this anti-government stance is serving other interests (it is no accident that the antigovernment part of our political culture is heavily allied with pro-corporate and pro-aggressive religious institutions, both of which benefit from a weaker and less trusted central government).

    Four million Americans hold some kind of top secret security clearance (500,000 of them are private conractors). Obviously these aren’t all keys to the kingdom, but as the article notes, increase the community that much, and you will get more rogue actors.

  4. Brian
    December 8, 2013 at 6:20 PM

    And while they scan computers, emails, cellphones, etc, one really ambitious, resourceful person can probably do damage with the good old fashion methods, because the FBI will have forgotten them.

  5. Warren
    December 9, 2013 at 9:56 AM

    I’m not concerned when they are tracking down a person connected to a crime. That is great, catching criminals is why they exist.

    I worry when they try to track down a crime connected to a person. If they dig hard enough, they will certainly find something on anybody.

    The first addresses crime that needs to be stopped. The second stops people who they decide they should attack, and reeks of political targeting.

  6. spookyparadigm
    December 9, 2013 at 5:24 PM

    BTW, when I was talking about the so-called “LOVEINT” cases of using NSA databases for stalking, here’s the ones they’ve admitted to

  7. December 9, 2013 at 6:37 PM

    “…an obviously egocentric contractor like Snowden”

    Absurd. Ever hear about Thomas Drake? He is a former senior executive of the U.S. National Security Agency, a decorated United States Air Force and United States Navy veteran, and a whistleblower. He went through all the proper channels he was supposed to to report unconstitutional wrongdoing. His reward was that the US government tried to set him up on trumped up charges and turn him into a traitor when he actually is a patriot. Then unethical prosecutors tried to get him to plea deal his rights away. He refused because he was innocent of all serious charges. What he did accept guilt for was simply a way for the government to save face over that illegal immoral prosecution.

    What do you think would happen to Snowden if he returned to the US? He would be treated even worse than Manning, and probably disappear into the gulag of secret prisons and torture. All high profile government whistleblowers warn Snowden not to return to the US.

  8. spookyparadigm
    December 9, 2013 at 10:00 PM

    Where did I say anything differently?

    I am not commenting on his leaking of documents, or his subsequent flight from the US. But I would contrast the self-created dramatic framing of his leak with Chelsea Manning, who quietly dumped her files to Wikileaks.His behavior in regards to this did lead the CIA to consider him a potential problem, but he got hired on NSA anyway.

    I’m suggesting that the combo of increasing the size of the intelligence community, and the privatization of that community has led to a loosening of standards and checks+balances, rules and practices that might have kept someone like Snowden out of sensitive positions years ago. This loosening has indeed led to leaks into practices ranging from the unsavory to the illegal to the obscene (see how quickly a little bit of plane spotting and journalistic digging uncovered the rendition flight network that led to the secret torture prisons, with journalists etc. just up and finding the front company mailboxes in Virginia, in the early 2000s). But while those leaks as a result of lax standards are good for transparency, those same lax standards are also going to empower rogues who aren’t interested in bringing illegal activity to light, but who are instead interested in selling data (to companies, political factions, foreign powers, etc.) or using it for their own personal ends.

    Having a surveillance state is bad enough. Not even caring that much who gets the keys to that state is even worse, both for the state and for those it surveils.

  9. ZombyWoof
    December 10, 2013 at 7:44 AM

    If you’re worried about your camera being activated remotely, put a piece of tape over the lens.

  10. December 10, 2013 at 1:02 PM

    I think your characterization of Snowden as “obviously egocentric” is at least debatable. It is merely your opinion, which I and many others don’t share, but that’s ok. I’m not going to dwell on that.

    A more interesting issue is my claim that if he returned to the US he would be disappeared. Here’s an article co-written by another whistleblower on that issue:

    “How the Powerful Intelligence World Is on the Verge of the Ability to Make People Digitally Disappear: George Orwell’s dystopian “memory hole” isn’t just the stuff of science fiction novels.”

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