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FBI docs out home-brewed spyware probes

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The FBI for at least seven years has relied on a home-brewed package of spyware to infiltrate the computers of criminals and secretly send a wide range of information to servers controlled by the bureau, according to an investigation by Wired.com.

The software, dubbed CIPAV, or computer and internet protocol address verifier, played a starring role in the investigations of a cast of criminals, including a Massachusetts man who tried to extort Verizon and Comcast by cutting off telephone, cable TV, and internet service for thousands of Boston residents and then demanding protection money. Agents trying to track the man's whereabouts were thwarted by his use of a German anonymization service until they obtained a warrant to use CIPAV in February 2005.

Although documents didn't provide the criminal's name, the facts of the case closely match those of Danny Kelly, an unemployed Massachusetts engineer who later pleaded guilty to extortion and was sentenced to five years probation.

According to a 2007 affidavit, CIPAV "gathers and reports a 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."

It then settles into silent mode, in which it surreptitiously monitors the machine's internet usage, including the IP address of every site it visits. Documents suggest that agents in some cases may exploit browser vulnerabilities to sneak CIPAV onto machines of suspects. In the case of a 15-year-old Washington state student suspected of making bomb threats, agents installed CIPAV after planting it in the private chat room on his MySpace account.

In a separate case targeting a hacker suspected of penetrating thousands of computers at Cisco, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and various US national laboratories, an agent sought approval to "plant CIPAV through an undercover operative posing as a Defense Department contractor" using a computer network connected to JPL's system, the article, penned by Kevin Poulsen, said.

Wired.com's investigation was based on 152 pages of heavily censored documents the FBI released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. The bureau withheld another 623 pages.

The documents catalog additional cases where CIPAV has been used, including:

  • The attempted extortion of a person after the person's Hotmail account was hijacked. FBI agents obtained a search warrant allowing them to send the intruder a CIPAV to uncover the suspect's location.
  • An undercover agent's request to use CIPAV to locate the computer of a person suspected in a case involving "WMD (bomb & anthrax)."
  • The deletion of an unnamed company's database that resulted in demands for payment for it to be restored. The FBI prepared a search warrant request authorizing agents to deliver the CIPAV through the suspects Yahoo email account.

The documents suggest that the FBI sought court orders before using CIPAV.

They also show the bureau was concerned that overuse of CIPAV could ultimately result in cases being thrown out of court.

"While the technique is of indisputable value in certain kinds of cases, we are seeing indications that it is being used needlessly by some agencies, unnecessarily raising difficult legal questions (and a risk of suppression) without any countervailing benefit," warned a March 7, 2002 memo from the Justice Department's Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section. ®

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