Leaked emails from an Italian-based hacking company reveal that government agencies engage in surveillance more invasive than previously thought, spending millions of dollars on spyware and malware software to accomplish their questionable goals. Tellingly, their use of the product places them squarely in the same category as other repressive regimes around the world.
After hackers ironically hacked Hacking Tools, a Milan-based company that sells strictly to governments, hundreds of gigabytes of emails and financial records were leaked.The emails show that the FBI, DEA, and U.S. Army all purchased software that enables them to view suspects’ photos, emails, listen to and record their conversations, and activate the cameras on their computers, among other things.
While this may seem like old news, the most controversial revelation was the government’s purchases of “Remote Control Systems.” The FBI, DEA, and U.S. Army, courtesy of Hacking Tools, possess the capability to take control of a suspect’s computer screen. The technology is so invasive that even the DEA, known for its violative surveillance policies, had reservations about purchasing it.
Hacking Tools has been sharply criticized for its sale of RCS to oppressive regimes around the world. From Sudan to Bahrain, Hacking Tools seeks business opportunities with rulers that target political activists, journalists, and political opponents—putting the American government agencies that employ the same technology—and often have the same objectives— in questionable company.
One of the more contentious revelations is the company’s hard sell that it can bypass encryption, a capability the FBI has openly desired since phone companies made encryption a default setting last year.
The FBI did seek warrants to use Hacking Tools technology in a handful of cases, but apparently uses a different platform for “critical” investigations. What the FBI really wanted from the Italian firm, according to leaked emails, was “more ability to go after users of Tor, the anonymizing web browser.” Such users accounted for 60% of the FBI’s use of Hacking Tools products.
In spite of these legitimate concerns, the technology is permeating other levels of government. Largely because of aggressive marketing by Hacking Tools, District Attorney offices around the country are eager to use the software.
Whether or not the government agencies who have purchased the software use it extensively or not is, at this point, irrelevant. That such bureaus and government officials have so much as the desire to use it — in some cases, in spite of a clear understanding of its controversial nature — is cause enough for concern.