The DEA Is Buying Cyberweapons from Hacking Team
The US Drug Enforcement Agency has purchased zero-day exploits from the cyberweapons arms manufacturer Hacking Team.
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The US Drug Enforcement Agency has purchased zero-day exploits from the cyberweapons arms manufacturer Hacking Team.
Late last year, in a criminal case involving export violations, the US government disclosed a mysterious database of telephone call records that it had queried in the case.
The defendant argued that the database was the NSA’s, and that the query was unconditional and the evidence should be suppressed. The government said that the database was not the NSA’s. As part of the back and forth, the judge ordered the government to explain the call records database.
Someone from the Drug Enforcement Agency did that last week. Apparently, there’s another bulk telephone metadata collection program and a “federal law enforcement database” authorized as part of a federal drug trafficking statute:
This database [redacted] consisted of telecommunications metadata obtained from United Stated telecommunications service providers pursuant to administrative subpoenas served up on the service providers under the provisions of 21 U.S.C. 876. This metadata related to international telephone calls originating in the United States and calling [redacted] designated foreign countries, one of which was Iran, that were determined to have a demonstrated nexus to international drug trafficking and related criminal activities.
The program began in the 1990s and was “suspended” in September 2013.
News article. Slashdot thread. Hacker News thread.
EDITED TO ADD (1/19): Another article.
This is a creepy story. A woman has her phone seized by the Drug Enforcement Agency and gives them permission to look at her phone. Without her knowledge or consent, they steal photos off of the phone (the article says they were “racy”) and use it to set up a fake Facebook page in her name.
The woman sued the government over this. Extra creepy was the government’s defense in court: “Defendants admit that Plaintiff did not give express permission for the use of photographs contained on her phone on an undercover Facebook page, but state the Plaintiff implicitly consented by granting access to the information stored in her cell phone and by consenting to the use of that information to aid in an ongoing criminal investigations [sic].”
The article was edited to say: “Update: Facebook has removed the page and the Justice Department said it is reviewing the incident.” So maybe this is just an overzealous agent and not official DEA policy.
But as Marcy Wheeler said, this is a good reason to encrypt your cell phone.
I’ve recently seen two articles speculating on the NSA’s capability, and practice, of spying on members of Congress and other elected officials. The evidence is all circumstantial and smacks of conspiracy thinking—and I have no idea whether any of it is true or not—but it’s a good illustration of what happens when trust in a public institution fails.
The NSA has repeatedly lied about the extent of its spying program. James R. Clapper, the director of national intelligence, has lied about it to Congress. Top-secret documents provided by Edward Snowden, and reported on by the Guardian and other newspapers, repeatedly show that the NSA’s surveillance systems are monitoring the communications of American citizens. The DEA has used this information to apprehend drug smugglers, then lied about it in court. The IRS has used this information to find tax cheats, then lied about it. It’s even been used to arrest a copyright violator. It seems that every time there is an allegation against the NSA, no matter how outlandish, it turns out to be true.
Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald has been playing this well, dribbling the information out one scandal at a time. It’s looking more and more as if the NSA doesn’t know what Snowden took. It’s hard for someone to lie convincingly if he doesn’t know what the opposition actually knows.
All of this denying and lying results in us not trusting anything the NSA says, anything the president says about the NSA, or anything companies say about their involvement with the NSA. We know secrecy corrupts, and we see that corruption. There’s simply no credibility, and—the real problem—no way for us to verify anything these people might say.
It’s a perfect environment for conspiracy theories to take root: no trust, assuming the worst, no way to verify the facts. Think JFK assassination theories. Think 9/11 conspiracies. Think UFOs. For all we know, the NSA might be spying on elected officials. Edward Snowden said that he had the ability to spy on anyone in the U.S., in real time, from his desk. His remarks were belittled, but it turns out he was right.
This is not going to improve anytime soon. Greenwald and other reporters are still poring over Snowden’s documents, and will continue to report stories about NSA overreach, lawbreaking, abuses, and privacy violations well into next year. The “independent” review that Obama promised of these surveillance programs will not help, because it will lack both the power to discover everything the NSA is doing and the ability to relay that information to the public.
It’s time to start cleaning up this mess. We need a special prosecutor, one not tied to the military, the corporations complicit in these programs, or the current political leadership, whether Democrat or Republican. This prosecutor needs free rein to go through the NSA’s files and discover the full extent of what the agency is doing, as well as enough technical staff who have the capability to understand it. He needs the power to subpoena government officials and take their sworn testimony. He needs the ability to bring criminal indictments where appropriate. And, of course, he needs the requisite security clearance to see it all.
We also need something like South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, where both government and corporate employees can come forward and tell their stories about NSA eavesdropping without fear of reprisal.
Yes, this will overturn the paradigm of keeping everything the NSA does secret, but Snowden and the reporters he’s shared documents with have already done that. The secrets are going to come out, and the journalists doing the outing are not going to be sympathetic to the NSA. If the agency were smart, it’d realize that the best thing it could do would be to get ahead of the leaks.
The result needs to be a public report about the NSA’s abuses, detailed enough that public watchdog groups can be convinced that everything is known. Only then can our country go about cleaning up the mess: shutting down programs, reforming the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act system, and reforming surveillance law to make it absolutely clear that even the NSA cannot eavesdrop on Americans without a warrant.
Comparisons are springing up between today’s NSA and the FBI of the 1950s and 1960s, and between NSA Director Keith Alexander and J. Edgar Hoover. We never managed to rein in Hoover’s FBI—it took his death for change to occur. I don’t think we’ll get so lucky with the NSA. While Alexander has enormous personal power, much of his power comes from the institution he leads. When he is replaced, that institution will remain.
Trust is essential for society to function. Without it, conspiracy theories naturally take hold. Even worse, without it we fail as a country and as a culture. It’s time to reinstitute the ideals of democracy: The government works for the people, open government is the best way to protect against government abuse, and a government keeping secrets from its people is a rare exception, not the norm.
This essay originally appeared on TheAtlantic.com.
Last month, I wrote about the potential for mass surveillance mission creep: the tendency for the vast NSA surveillance apparatus to be used for other, lesser, crimes. My essay was theoretical, but it turns out to be already happening.
Other agencies are already asking to use the NSA data:
Agencies working to curb drug trafficking, cyberattacks, money laundering, counterfeiting and even copyright infringement complain that their attempts to exploit the security agency’s vast resources have often been turned down because their own investigations are not considered a high enough priority, current and former government officials say.
The Drug Enforcement Agency is already using this data, and lying about it:
A secretive U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration unit is funneling information from intelligence intercepts, wiretaps, informants and a massive database of telephone records to authorities across the nation to help them launch criminal investigations of Americans.
Although these cases rarely involve national security issues, documents reviewed by Reuters show that law enforcement agents have been directed to conceal how such investigations truly begin—not only from defense lawyers but also sometimes from prosecutors and judges.
The undated documents show that federal agents are trained to “recreate” the investigative trail to effectively cover up where the information originated, a practice that some experts say violates a defendant’s Constitutional right to a fair trial. If defendants don’t know how an investigation began, they cannot know to ask to review potential sources of exculpatory evidence—information that could reveal entrapment, mistakes or biased witnesses.
I find that “some experts say” bit funny. I suppose it’s Reuters’ way of pretending there’s balance.
This is really bad. The surveillance state is closer than most of us think.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency has complained (in a classified report, not publicly) that Apple’s iMessage end-to-end encryption scheme can’t be broken. On the one hand, I’m not surprised; end-to-end encryption of a messaging system is a fairly easy cryptographic problem, and it should be unbreakable. On the other hand, it’s nice to have some confirmation that Apple is looking out for the users’ best interests and not the governments’.
Still, it’s impossible for us to know if iMessage encryption is actually secure. It’s certainly possible that Apple messed up somewhere, and since we have no idea how their encryption actually works, we can’t verify its functionality. It would be really nice if Apple would release the specifications of iMessage security.
EDITED TO ADD (4/8): There’s more to this story:
The DEA memo simply observes that, because iMessages are encrypted and sent via the Internet through Apple’s servers, a conventional wiretap installed at the cellular carrier’s facility isn’t going to catch those iMessages along with conventional text messages. Which shouldn’t exactly be surprising: A search of your postal mail isn’t going to capture your phone calls either; they’re just different communications channels. But the CNET article strongly implies that this means encrypted iMessages cannot be accessed by law enforcement at all. That is almost certainly false.
The question is whether iMessage uses true end-to-end encryption, or whether Apple has copies of the keys.
U.S. drug enforcement agents use key loggers to bypass both PGP and Hushmail encryption:
An agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration persuaded a federal judge to authorize him to sneak into an Escondido, Calif., office believed to be a front for manufacturing the drug MDMA, or Ecstasy. The DEA received permission to copy the hard drives’ contents and inject a keystroke logger into the computers.
That was necessary, according to DEA Agent Greg Coffey, because the suspects were using PGP and the encrypted Web e-mail service Hushmail.com. Coffey asserted that the DEA needed “real-time and meaningful access” to “monitor the keystrokes” for PGP and Hushmail passphrases.
And the FBI used spyware to monitor someone suspected of making bomb threats:
In an affidavit seeking a search warrant to use the software, filed last month in U.S. District Court in the Western District of Washington, FBI agent Norman Sanders describes the software as a “computer and internet protocol address verifier,” or CIPAV.
The full capabilities of the FBI’s “computer and internet protocol address verifier” are closely guarded secrets, but here’s some of the data the malware collects from a computer immediately after infiltrating it, according to a bureau affidavit acquired by Wired News.
- IP address
- MAC address of ethernet cards
- A list of open TCP and UDP ports
- A list of running programs
- The operating system type, version and serial number
- The default internet browser and version
- The registered user of the operating system, and registered company name, if any
- The current logged-in user name
- The last visited URL
Once that data is gathered, the CIPAV begins secretly monitoring the computer’s internet use, logging every IP address to which the machine connects.
All that information is sent over the internet to an FBI computer in Virginia, likely located at the FBI’s technical laboratory in Quantico.
Sanders wrote that the spyware program gathers a wide range of information, including the computer’s IP address; MAC address; open ports; a list of running programs; the operating system type, version and serial number; preferred internet browser and version; the computer’s registered owner and registered company name; the current logged-in user name and the last-visited URL.
The CIPAV then settles into a silent “pen register” mode, in which it lurks on the target computer and monitors its internet use, logging the IP address of every computer to which the machine connects for up to 60 days.
I’ve been saying this for a while: the easiest way to get at someone’s communications is not by intercepting it in transit, but by accessing it on the sender’s or recipient’s computers.
EDITED TO ADD (7/20): I should add that the police got a warrant in both cases. This is not a story about abuse of police power or surveillance without a warrant. This is a story about how the police conducts electronic surveillance, and how they bypass security technologies.
Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.