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FBI sought approval to use spyware against terror suspects

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Analysis The FBI has reportedly sought the go-ahead to use a custom spyware package to bug terrorists and other national security suspects. Indirect evidence suggests that the request was likely to have been approved.

An application to use the Computer and Internet Protocol Address Verifier (CIPAV) spyware program was sought from the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in 2005, according to papers obtained by Wired after filling a Freedom of Information Act request.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court rubber-stamps surveillance orders and covert entries in cases involving national security or terrorism. The court, established by the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, is based at the Justice Department's headquarters. FISC hearings are closed.

Among the reams of papers released in response to Wired's request (largely composed of internal emails and technical documents) are affidavits submitted by the FBI to the FISC star chamber to use the CIPAV package. The software is designed to log a target's internet use, recording every IP address a suspect computer communicates with. It also performs an inventory of operating systems, installed and running applications and logs open ports, IP addresses and Mac addresses of targeted PCs.

The existence of CIPAV came to light in July when it emerged in affidavits that feds used the package to trace the perpetrators of high school bomb hoaxes. The FBI declined to answer Wired's follow-up questions on its use of the surveillance tool.

FISC approved 2,072 warrants it considered in 2005 and 2,181 in 2006, rejecting none. Five requests were withdrawn before a ruling was made. Given this track record it seems more than probable that FISC approved the use of CIPAV.

Law Enforcement Trojan ploy

US authorities are far from alone in seeking approval for the use of "remote forensic software" (AKA a law enforcement Trojan) to bug the PCs of terrorist suspects. The German government is reportedly in the process of hiring coders to develop "white hat" malware capable of covertly hacking into PCs ahead of plans to change German law to allow the practice. Proposals by German firm Digitask to develop software to intercept Skype VoIP communications and SSL transmissions leaked onto the net last month.

The wider use of encryption and VoIP is creating problems for law enforcement agencies. Law enforcement use of spyware tactics might, according to some law enforcement officials at least, level the playing field by providing a vital extra tool in the fight against terrorism.

However, the scheme is fraught with difficulties.

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