FBI Admits To Using Zero Day Exploits To Hack Into Computers

from the that-doesn't-make-you-safer dept

It’s been widely suspected for ages that both the NSA and the FBI made use of so-called “zero-day” exploits to hack into computers. Leaks from a few years ago (which may or may not have come from Snowden) exposed just how massive the NSA’s exploit operation was, and there have been plenty of stories of security companies selling exploits to the NSA, who would use them, rather than reveal them and get them patched — thereby putting the public at risk. Last year, the President told the NSA to get better at revealing these zero day exploits to companies to patch, rather than hoarding them for their own use. Just about a month ago, the NSA proudly announced that it now discloses vulnerabilities 90% of the time — but conveniently left out how long it uses them before disclosing them.

However, the FBI’s use of zero day exploits has been much more of a black box. The FBI has a long history of using various hacking tools to break into computers, and the judicial system has been an ever obedient “overseer” in letting the FBI do damn close to whatever it pleases. But, now, for the first time, the FBI has publicly admitted to using zero day exploits. It comes out in a Washington Post profile of Amy Hess, who heads the Operational Technology Division (OTD) of the FBI.

The profile is pretty interesting, and there’s lots of technical wizardry that I think most people would agree is good for the FBI to have for investigating crimes. But the surveillance aspects are pretty sketchy, as always. And here, Hess confesses to using zero days, though she insists that they’re not really that useful:

Hess acknowledged that the bureau uses zero-days ? the first time an official has done so. She said the trade-off is one the bureau wrestles with. ?What is the greater good ? to be able to identify a person who is threatening public safety?? Or to alert software makers to bugs that, if unpatched, could leave consumers vulnerable?

?How do we balance that?? she said. ?That is a constant challenge for us.?

She added that hacking computers is not a favored FBI technique. ?It?s frail,? she said. As soon as a tech firm updates its software, the tool vanishes. ?It clearly is not reliable? in the way a traditional wiretap is, she said.

The other tidbit worth reading discusses just how well the FBI informs judges when seeking warrants to use some of its more esoteric spy equipment. The answer, not surprisingly, is that it looks like the FBI frequently misleads the judiciary into the specifics of what it’s really doing.

Another group that remains shrouded is OTD?s Remote Operations Unit. There, technicians with a warrant hack computers to identify suspects. Euphemistically called ?network investigative techniques,? that activity has stirred concerns similar to those raised with the use of StingRays.

For one thing, the warrant applications do not describe the technique?s use in detail. So judges may not really understand what they are authorizing. Hess said that agents can describe the process more fully to a judge in closed chambers. That?s if the judge knows to ask.

It’s these kinds of things that are wide open to abuse — and the FBI has a very long and very detailed history of abusing its powers.

Again, I think most people would agree that the FBI should have a strong technology team that is able to provide useful tools for criminal investigations. But there’s a fine line between an investigation and illegal surveillance. And, at the same time, there’s the issue of abusing exploits when they could be making the public safer by getting them patched.

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Comments on “FBI Admits To Using Zero Day Exploits To Hack Into Computers”

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Anonymous Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Do you really think those zero days are distributed ONLY to the target of the warrant? How do the virus tracking companies find them if they are not widely distributed? What about all the other people who get infected with them?

Now, if you have finally put your brain in gear, you might see what is so objectionable.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re:

What’s objectionable is the method. By using zero-day vulnerabilities, rather than informing companies so that they can patch them, they leave many people vulnerable for the sake of gathering information on one. Kinda hard to argue that you’re trying to protect the public when you’re deliberately leaving a security flaw open like that just so you can use it.

tqk (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I don’t really see what’s so objectionable here.

If you’ve got root on suspected bad guy’s box, are you going to be looking into what he’s done and what he’s doing? With a warrant signed by a judge who understands the situation, great!

Are you going to be planting evidence or manufacturing terrorist plots just to get suspected bad guy in jail (which is what the prosecutor is going to be screaming for)? Not so good, and in Chicago (among many other places) I’d expect the latter. Are judges knowledgable enough to demand full transcripts of the cops’ actions and believable before and after listings of devices’ contents and actions? Ha ha. Very funny.

Who watches the watchers? We still care about chain of evidence and all that boring technical stuff, right?

Anonymous Coward says:

>it looks like the FBI frequently misleads the judiciary
That’s a bold claim. Not that I would refuse to believe it, but the cited article doesn’t give enough evidence to lead one to that conclusion, as the author states “So judges may not really understand what they are authorizing.” Notice the word “may”.

Objectivity and skepticism make the best TD articles, I hope we can avoid partisan assumptions.

Anonymous Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Well there have been a number of incidents where the “FBI” has manufactured a case and brought a person that they manipulated into criminal acts, into court. Sometimes the “FBI” is straight forward with the judge and other times not. Because of that legacy it would be reasonable for every judge to not trust them again, or at least until they have a very long track record of not fudging the truth.

@b (user link) says:

Seegras nails it.

Your government keepa hiding the fact that a comet is hurtling towards planet earth, because Agents keeps deciding the United State wants their federal agency digging up potentially useful potential dirt on potential bad guys instead of telling the world a discovered fact that’s PLAINLY useful for good guys to be OPENLY told on Day Bloody Zero.

Agency nontransparency is as dangerous as US drone policy is unjust.

What’s being done in secret is not being done in America’s name. She is kept blind.

Dave Cortright says:

Don't forget the hypocrisy of it all...

Isn’t hacking into a computer system using a vulnerability like this a crime? I see all sorts of press releases of the FBI charging people for doing exactly this same thing. Heck, even lesser “hacking” crimes (like Aaron Schwartz) have triggered the wrath of the establishment.

I’m not sure this government is really by the people for the people anymore.

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