The Feds are taking advantage of techniques more typically associated with malicious hackers to collect information on suspects, leveraging tools that can bring the traditional wiretap up to speed with the always-connected digital age.
Federal agencies usually do not disclose information about these capabilities, but recent court documents and interviews with program insiders reveal new details about hacking tools commonly used by the Federal Bureau of Investigation to deliver spyware to phones and computers, reports the Wall Street Journal.
When a 'simple' wiretap isn't enough, the FBI will use spyware under court orders to combat individuals who 'go dark' through the use of new technology and online chat programs that implement encryption to obfuscate communications, according to people familiar with the FBI programs.
Some of the tools are developed internally at the FBI, while others are contracted and purchased from the private sector. The software allows the Bureau to remotely activate microphones on Android smartphones and laptops, according to one former U.S. official. Both the FBI and Google declined to comment to the WSJ.
The report states that the FBI has been developing hacking tools for more than ten years, and typically uses them in cases involving organized crime, child pornography, and counterterrorism. According to a U.S. official, they are not used when investigating hacking cases for fear of discovery and public disclosure by the hacker.
Amid rampant allegations of government overreach through digital surveillance programs, news of the FBI using such tools is no surprise, but could be considered in a different league of snooping. Mark Eckenwiler, the Justice Department's former primary authority on federal criminal surveillance law, says that a search warrant is required for every use of these tools, as well as to collect any data from a suspect's computer or device.