New Documents Reveal Massive FBI Secret Spyware Operation Ran Through Social Networking Sites
The Electronic Frontier Foundation has published a series of documents detailing a secret FBI spyware operation that targets security vulnerabilities in users computers and installs spyware from social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook.
Once infected the spyware allows the Feds to track the online activities of infected users as well as identify the user’s location software installed on the computer as well as the hardware the user is using.
To make matters worse the FBI is pushing to require websites and applications such as Gmail, Skype and Facebook give the Feds to install this type of spyware at their demand to give the Feds the ability to spy on our personal data and online communications. If we choose to remain silent about this our expectation of privacy and other constitutional rights will disappear before our very eyes.
EFF recently received documents from the FBI that reveal details about the depth of the agency’s electronic surveillance capabilities and call into question the FBI’s controversial effort to push Congress to expand the Communications Assistance to Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) for greater access to communications data. The documents we received were sent to us in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request we filed back in 2007 after Wired reported on evidence that the FBI was able to use “secret spyware” to track the source of e-mailed bomb threats against a Washington state high school. The documents discuss a tool called a “web bug” or a “Computer and Internet Protocol Address Verifier” (CIPAV),1 which seems to have been in use since at least 2001.2
What is CIPAV and How Does It Work?
The documents discuss technology that, when installed on a target’s computer, allows the FBI to collect the following information:
- IP Address
- Media Access Control (MAC) address
- “Browser environment variables”
- Open communication ports
- List of the programs running
- Operating system type, version, and serial number
- Browser type and version
- Language encoding
- The URL that the target computer was previously connected to
- Registered computer name
- Registered company name
- Currently logged in user name
- Other information that would assist with “identifying computer users, computer software installed, [and] computer hardware installed”3
It’s not clear from the documents how the FBI deploys the spyware, though Wired has reported that, in the Washington state case, the FBI may have sent a URL via MySpace’s internal messaging, pointing to code that would install the spyware by exploiting a vulnerability in the user’s browser. Although the documents discuss some problems with installing the tool in some cases, other documents note that the agency’s Crypto Unit only needs 24-48 hours to prepare deployment.4 And once the tool is deployed, “it stay[s] persistent on the compromised computer and . . . every time the computer connects to the Internet, [FBI] will capture the information associated with the PRTT [Pen Register/Trap & Trace Order].5
Where Has CIPAV Been Used and What Legal Process Does the FBI Rely On to Use It?
It is clear from the documents we received that the FBI—and likely other federal agencies—have used this tool a lot. According the documents, the FBI has used CIPAV in cases across the country—from Denver, El Paso, and Honolulu in 2005; to Philadelphia, California, and Houston in 2006; to Cincinnati and Miami in 2007. In fact, one stack of documents we received consists entirely of requests from FBI offices around the country to the agency’s Cryptologic and Electronic Analysis Unit (“CEAU”) for help installing the device.6
The FBI has been using the tool in domestic criminal investigations as well as in FISA cases,7 and the FISA Court appears to have questioned the propriety of the tool.8 Other agencies, and even other countries have shown interest in the tool, indicating its effectiveness. Emails from 2006 discuss interest from the Air Force,9 the Naval Criminal Investigative Service10 and the Joint Task Force-Global Network Operations,11 while another email from 2007 discusses interest from the German government.12
The FBI’s Crypto Unit appears to have viewed the CIPAV as a proprietary tool. In one email, an agent grumbled, “we are seeing indications that [CIPAV] is being used needlessly by some agencies, unnecessarily raising difficult legal questions (and a risk of suppression without any countervailing benefit).”13 In another email, an agent stated, “[I] am weary [sic] to just hand over our tools to another Gov’t agency without any oversight or protection for our tool/technique.”14 And a third email noted, “[w]e never discuss how we collect the [data CIPAV can collect] in the warrants/affidavits or with case agents. AUSAs, squad supervisors, outside agencies, etc.”15
It appears from the documents that the FBI wasn’t sure what legal process to seek to authorize use of the spyware device. Some emails discuss trying to use a “trespasser exception” to get around a warrant,16 while others discuss telling the AUSA (government attorney) to cite to the “All Writs Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1651(a).”17 And one email suggests some agents thought the tool required no legal process at all. In that email, the FBI employee notes he considers the tool to be “consensual monitoring without need for process; in my mind, no different than sitting in a chat room and tracking participants’ on/off times; or for that matter sitting on P2P networks and finding out who is offering KP.”18
Eventually, the FBI seems to have sought a legal opinion on the proper use of the tool, both from the Office of General Counsel and from the National Security Law Branch,19 and ultimately, the agency seems to have settled on a “two-step request” process for CIPAV deployments — a search warrant to authorize intrusion into the computer, and then a subsequent Pen/Trap order to authorize the surveillance done by the spyware.20
Source: Electronic Frontier Foundation
As noted in the EFF article the FBI through the constitution out the window and internally decided there was no need for due process or need to get a search warrant claiming that install the spyware on our computers is no different than using a chat program to monitor people’s online conversations in chat rooms. It does appear however, although unconfirmed, the FBI may have moved toward a policy of first obtaining warrants.
Click here to access full pdf versions of the documents we received or see below for the pages referenced in this article