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Fox News reports that court documents and interviews have revealed the new surveillance programs, which include the use by law enforcement of spyware which can be sent to computers and phones through e-mail and web links.
People familiar with the FBI-run programs told the Wall Street Journal that the agency is increasing its use of court-ordered hacking instruments to keep tabs on suspects who are communicating in ways which cannot be wiretapped. To use a term law enforcement officials employ, suspects who “go dark.”
Some of the hacking tools the FBI uses have been developed internally, while others were created by the private sector.
The FBI typically uses hacking in cases involving organized crime, child pornography, or counterterrorism, a former U.S. official said. The agency is less inclined to use these tools when investigating hackers, out of fear the suspect will discover and publicize the technique.
The FBI “hires people who have hacking skills, and they purchase tools that are capable of doing these things,” a former official in the agency’s cyber division told the Journal. The tools are used when other surveillance methods won’t work: “When you do it, it’s because you don’t have any other choice,” the official said.
An FBI outfit, called the Remote Operations Unit, runs the bureau’s hacking efforts, according to former officials. Officers often install surveillance tools on computers remotely, using a document or link that loads software when the person clicks or views it. The Journal notes that in some cases, the government has secretly gained physical access to suspects’ machines and installed malicious software using a thumb drive.
The federal government has asked for the private sector to help develop these tools in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations.
One former U.S. official told the Journal that the technology will allow the agency to activate microphones on Android cellphones to record conversations.