FBI Using Top Secret Hacking Weapons

 

A forensic artist with the FBI demonstrates how she does a 3D laser scan of a skull on a computer in Quantico, VA on Wednesday June 20, 2012. Jabin Botsford—The Washington Post The Washington Post via Getty Images

 

A top agency official acknowledged that it uses secret software vulnerabilities in investigations.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation recently made an unprecedented admission: It uses undisclosed software vulnerabilities when hacking suspects’ computers.

Amy Hess, head of the FBI’s science and technology arm, recently went on the record about the practice with the Washington Post. “Hess acknowledged that the bureau uses zero-days,” the Post reported on Tuesday, using industry-speak for generally unknown computer bugs. The name derives from the way such flaws blind side security pros. By the time attackers have begun taking advantage of these coding flubs, software engineers are left with zero days to fix them.

A forensic artist with the FBI demonstrates how she does a 3D laser scan of a skull on a computer in Quantico, VA on Wednesday June 20, 2012.

A top agency official acknowledged that it uses secret software vulnerabilities in investigations.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation recently made an unprecedented admission: It uses undisclosed software vulnerabilities when hacking suspects’ computers.

Amy Hess, head of the FBI’s science and technology arm, recently went on the record about the practice with the Washington Post. “Hess acknowledged that the bureau uses zero-days,” the Post reported on Tuesday, using industry-speak for generally unknown computer bugs. The name derives from the way such flaws blind side security pros. By the time attackers have begun taking advantage of these coding flubs, software engineers are left with zero days to fix them.

Never before has an FBI official conceded the point, the Post notes. That’s noteworthy. Although the news itself is not exactly a shocker. 

It is well known among cybersecurity and privacy circles that the agency has had a zero day policy in place since 2010, thanks to documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union and published earlier this year on Wired. And working groups had been assembled at least two years earlier to begin mapping out that policy, as a document obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation privacy organization and also published on Wired shows. Now though, Hess, an executive assistant director with the FBI, seems to have confirmed the activity.

(People surmised as much after the FBI was outed as a customer of the Italian spyware firm Hacking Team after hackers stole some of its internal documents and published them online this year, too.)

The agency’s “network investigative techniques,” as these hacking operations are known, originate inside the FBI’s Operational Technology Division in an enclave known as its Remote Operations Unit, according to the Post. They’re rarely discussed publicly, and many privacy advocates have a number of concerns about the system, which they say could potentially be abused or have unsavory consequences.

Law enforcement agencies’ reliance on such exploits poses a Catch-22. On the one hand, hoarding coveted bugs and keeping them secret lets authorities slyly target suspects and collect evidence (with a warrant, of course). On the other hand, alerting tech companies about flaws in their products lets them fix the problems, protecting customers everywhere and securing them against attacks from less well-intentioned hackers and spies. The two incentives are undeniably at odds.

That dilemma grows more complex when another compelling reason for agencies like the FBI to use zero days enters the mix. The hacking method lets investigators sidestep roadblocks posed by strong encryption, a technology that scrambles data and communications and increasingly leaves the Feds in the dark, so to speak, when probing wires and hard drives for incriminating information. Consider the hacking option as the agency’s “plan B,” as the Intercept has detailed.

The tactic isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, Jonathan Mayer, the Federal Communication Commission’s recently appointed technical lead for investigations who is also a well-known privacy advocate, earlier this year described hacking as a potentially “legitimate and effective law enforcement technique” in an academic paper. Another set of big-name security researchers also recently argued in a paper that targeted hacking campaigns could provide a tolerable alternative to mandating that tech firms add special “backdoor” access to their encrypted products for investigators.

Read the more on Fortune

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