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Attacks/Breaches

FBI Seeks License To Hack Bot-Infected PCs

Justice Department seeks search warrant changes to battle online crime syndicates, but critics cite impact on innocent bystanders and potential for abuse.

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A Department of Justice proposal would make it easier for FBI investigators to hack into remote devices that have had their location purposefully obscured or that are acting as part of a botnet.

The proposal was published Friday for comment, ahead of a May 29 meeting of the US Judicial Conference's committee that sets policies and procedures for the country's court systems. The proposal would alter search warrant rules -- called Rule 41 in the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure -- including lifting current restrictions on judges only being authorized to sign search warrants for within their jurisdiction.

Multiple civil liberties and privacy rights groups, however, have warned that the changes would give government investigators too much power, too little accountability, and would affect too many innocent bystanders.

But the Justice Department says that it needs expanded powers to help prosecute online criminals who operate anonymously and across the country's 94 federal judicial districts. "Our rule change will ensure that courts can be asked to review warrant applications for probable cause in situations where is it currently unclear what judge has authority to review a warrant application,” Justice Department spokesman Peter Carr says in an emailed statement. "The proposal makes explicit that it does not work any change to the traditional rules governing probable cause and notice."

[A former Navy admin has been charged with compromising more than 30 government and private sites. Read Navy Nuclear Carrier Sysadmin Busted For Hacking Databases.]

One change contained in the proposal would allow judges to sign warrants that authorize remote access by the FBI to search electronic storage media and to seize or copy electronically stored information if the location of the computer has been concealed through technological means, or for cases involving systems located in five or more districts -- for example, if they're being used as part of a botnet. The bureau also wants the ability to send search warrant notifications to suspects via email or other digital means.

While those requests might sound like simple, necessary changes designed to bust cybercrime syndicates, the devil is in the details. "In one sense, this is a minor change in the rule to allow a judge to issue a warrant to search a specific computer which may or may not be located in the district in which the judge is located," said Mark Rasch, a former federal computer crime prosecutor who's now the chief privacy officer for SAIC, speaking by phone.

"But it has real potential for abuse," he added -- for example, if prosecutors engage in "judge shopping" or "forum shopping" by refiling rejected search warrant requests until they find a judge -- in whatever jurisdiction -- who will sign it.

The changes would also authorize the FBI, in its pursuit of botnet masterminds or other criminals, to automatically install malware on large numbers of infected PCs. "In plain English, this proposal would permit the government to seek warrants allowing it to hack into computers over the Internet using malware," said Nathan Freed Wessler, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union's speech, privacy, and technology project, in a blog post. He also warned that the bureau might continue to tap zero-day vulnerabilities to help hack into bot-infected PCs, which could put everyday Internet users at risk if criminals or other nation states reverse-engineered the bugs exploited by the FBI.

Under the proposal, instead of having to obtain search warrants to hack individual PCs, the FBI could use one search order to access large numbers of systems. "What that means is the government could then install its own anti-botnet with one order, infecting not the botnet authors' computer, but the botnet victims' computers," explained SAIC's Rasch. Cue the potential for large numbers of innocent bystanders having their computers and cloud accounts searched by the FBI, despite facing no reasonable suspicion of having done anything wrong.

But according to Rasch, probably the most troubling problem concerns notification. Currently, whenever police

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Mathew Schwartz served as the InformationWeek information security reporter from 2010 until mid-2014. View Full Bio

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Lorna Garey
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Lorna Garey,
User Rank: Ninja
5/12/2014 | 3:31:57 PM
Criminally dumb
"Cue the potential for large numbers of innocent bystanders having their computers and cloud accounts searched by the FBI, despite facing no reasonable suspicion of having done anything wrong."

They allowed their computers to be sucked into botnets. How is it different from someone allowing through negligence a piece of physical property -- say an empty house --  to be used as a base for criminal activity?  
Thomas Claburn
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Thomas Claburn,
User Rank: Ninja
5/12/2014 | 3:35:54 PM
Re: Criminally dumb
I suppose there's something to be said for the FBI seeking permission. It's not much, but it's something.
Robert McDougal
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Robert McDougal,
User Rank: Ninja
5/12/2014 | 4:08:33 PM
Re: Criminally dumb
I have to disagree.  Many of these computers are infected because the owners are technological illiterate.  That fact doesn't make it ok for the FBI, or anyone else, to further hack into their computers and seize their personal data.

This is far too much power for the FBI to possess.  
Lorna Garey
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Lorna Garey,
User Rank: Ninja
5/12/2014 | 4:12:30 PM
Re: Criminally dumb
Not sure anyone is arguing it's OK to sieze data unrelated to the attacks. Just as arguably the FBI is doing the company a favor if it checks botnets and finds that the owner is unaware, and notifies the company or individual. 

Offensive security is coming. This is a small step along that path. Better to make the attempt to regulate it with judicial checks than to drive it underground.
Robert McDougal
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Robert McDougal,
User Rank: Ninja
5/12/2014 | 4:29:10 PM
Re: Criminally dumb
Offensive security is acceptable if it is directed at a legitimate attacker.  However, at the heart of this proposal is this little nugget:
One change contained in the proposal would allow judges to sign warrants that authorize remote access by the FBI to search electronic storage media and to seize or copy electronically stored information if the location of the computer has been concealed through technological means, or for cases involving systems located in five or more districts -- for example, if they're being used as part of a botnet.

So, in actuallity we are discussing allowing the FBI the power to copy or seize data from innocent people.  Additionally, the FBI will then be able to use the "Plain View Doctrine" to bring charges against the people they hacked.

In my opinion, they should have the ability to remotely attack a legitimate threat but not members of a botnet.
Lorna Garey
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Lorna Garey,
User Rank: Ninja
5/12/2014 | 4:45:58 PM
Re: Criminally dumb
Extending that argument, how should the FBI distinguish a legitimate threat from some dumb schmuck in a botnet without looking at the data on the device in question? Chicken and egg, right?
Robert McDougal
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Robert McDougal,
User Rank: Ninja
5/12/2014 | 4:57:33 PM
Re: Criminally dumb
Actually, I don't understand the purpose of investigating the actual compromised machines in the first place.  If I wanted to understand how this botnet functioned I would simply create a VM and purposefully infect it and then study it.  In that way you are better able to understand how the botnet works and monitor for communication coming from the owner of the botnet.

I see no value in remotely hacking into someones compromised machine when you can produce the same machine in a sandbox.
GonzSTL
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GonzSTL,
User Rank: Ninja
5/13/2014 | 10:01:45 AM
Re: Criminally dumb
Completely agree! Steve Gibson did a similar thing years ago when his site was taken down by a teenager. He may still have the complete analysis on his website. By infiltrating the botnet and C&C, he saw exactly what kind of communication was transpiring between the bots and the command center.

The scary part of this request is the desire to copy electronic data residing on an infected computer. Imagine what kind of personal and financial information they will harvest from this operation.
Marilyn Cohodas
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Marilyn Cohodas,
User Rank: Strategist
5/13/2014 | 10:35:17 AM
Re: Criminally dumb
You've got a good memory, @GonzSTL! Here's a link to the reference to Steve Gibson, per a June 2001 story in theguardian.com, "Teenage Clicks." 
GonzSTL
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GonzSTL,
User Rank: Ninja
5/13/2014 | 11:36:00 AM
Re: Criminally dumb
@Marilyn Cohodas I've been teaching Information Security for over 10 years, and the Steve Gibson story is one I use frequently, especially to stress that internet attacks are nothing new, and are quite simple to orchestrate. After all, one cannot defend against these threats unlless one knows its anatomy. The link at the end contains the full story, including the analysis of the botnet and the C&C communications with the botnet. Frightening stuff when you see how simple a DDOS attack really is. http://www.crime-research.org/library/grcdos.pdf
Marilyn Cohodas
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50%
Marilyn Cohodas,
User Rank: Strategist
5/13/2014 | 11:44:51 AM
Re: Criminally dumb
Thanks for the original PDF from Steve Gibson and Gibson Research Corporation. Your point is well taken and stilll very instructive 13 years after the fact.
speshul
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speshul,
User Rank: Strategist
5/13/2014 | 12:27:35 PM
Re: Criminally dumb
Personally I believe anyone who is in an I.T. position needs to know how the attacks work. I got into I.T. by being hacked as a teenager, and simply asking the hacker how he did it. At the time it seemed like a hack, but all it simply was was a program that logged several thousand yahoo accounts in at a time and would send me freeze codes that would lock my computer up. After I knew how it worked, I simply blocked messages from everyone that wasn't on my friends list. This is how you learn to deal with attacks and block them.

 

EVERY I.T. person should have to go through training that teaches them how these attacks work and operate and the usual methods used. I can't count how many times I've worked with other I.T. reps and they are completely clueless as to how people hack and attack networks and computers. They simply don't know any of the steps or how they're performed. In a world that is dominated by computers, and is rampant with viruses and malware... this should be a requirement in the I.T. field. Even for normal help desk users. So when they see the signs, they can start to immediately react and minimize the effects.
securityaffairs
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securityaffairs,
User Rank: Ninja
5/12/2014 | 5:37:35 PM
Re: Criminally dumb
Feds agencies simply continue to do what they are already doing, hacking on internal and foreign systems, they are just searching for a plausible consensus, but I think this could not be accepted in the way it has been formulated in the US proposal. Think a foreign government that makes a similar proposal and authorize itself to hack US-based computers. Absurd!

 

 
speshul
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speshul,
User Rank: Strategist
5/13/2014 | 10:39:56 AM
Re: Criminally dumb
It's different because you can physically see the criminals. With computers, they can be completely invisible. That's like getting mad at people in the movie Harry Potter for not being able to see him with his invisibility cloak on. Your excuse for the government lacks any real reason to spy on average citizens who aren't as tech savy as I.T. professionals. Most of our society is so innadequate at technology that stores like Geek Squad and such can overcharge for simple virus removals. Most people just don't know any better.

 

The problem is that our government has been caught installing malware on systems.

http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20131124/20304025345/nsa-has-50000-computer-botnet-secretly-installing-malware-around-globe.shtml

 

Now suddenly they need to fix the malware and hacking problem? So basically they create a system that targets all users and installs malware. THEN they go and say, "Hey you've got malware installed, we need to look at what's going on." Your information and logs are dumped onto their servers and looked through with programs. Your personal information is stored on their servers, WITHOUT your knowledge or comitting a crime. They're creating the criminal actions, then creating a defense against it... all to resume spying. This is honestly a rookie hacking move, and anyone with some real knowledge of networking and computers can see through this rouse. If you can't, then you don't deserve to be able to touch a computer while waving your finger calling people criminally dumb.
Stephen@STSCORP
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50%
[email protected],
User Rank: Apprentice
5/13/2014 | 5:08:05 PM
Re: Criminally dumb
"How is it different from someone allowing through negligence a piece of physical property -- say an empty house --  to be used as a base for criminal activity? "

I think it differs just a bit. In, that the data on someone's machine would be picked through thoroughly compared to a physical check of someone's property where they'd lift the machine from one's home, and not bother to check the fridge, sink, cabinets and so on.
Whoopty
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Whoopty,
User Rank: Ninja
5/13/2014 | 6:35:12 AM
More of the same
As if Federal authorities needed more clearance to access the personal data of citizens and foreign nationals. Botnet infected PCs are often unsuspecting end users, not those that are deliberately part of a regime of nefarious hackers. 

This will simply mean that anyone who's been infected by malware is a more legitimate target than ever for federal spying. 
SgS125
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0%
SgS125,
User Rank: Ninja
5/13/2014 | 10:45:02 AM
too much access?
I guess it's about time they charge Target with a criminal charge then, as they had the empty house that the criminals used to run a malware botnet that scarpped off credit cards of innocent shoppers?

Is it about who owns the house or is it about who commits the crime?

If the federal investigators want to find and bring down botnets, how can they do so without accessing computers all over the internet?  Why would other countries allow our federal authorities to grab systems from within their borders?  Why we would we allow federal authorities to grab our systems as well?

For me there are many more questions about this issue than answers.

Sure it sounds great when we talk about shutting down online criminals, but at what cost to our privacy?  Surely there is a way to operate effectivly without stomping on an individuals rights to privavcy.

If an investigative reporter like Brain Krebs can track down and alert authorities to issues, why can't the federal government?

 

 

 

 
speshul
50%
50%
speshul,
User Rank: Strategist
5/13/2014 | 11:04:43 AM
Re: too much access?
You've hit it. It seems to me that with the internet right now America is reacting like after September 11th. Willing to toss individual liberties and rights in order to "Stop the bad guys". The problem is that it's come to our attention that our own government is often the bad guys.

 

The issue right now is that this isn't getting enough coverage due to the Net Nuetrality being the main focus right now. Stuff like this should be just as important and talked about just as badly. Seeking for more power and less oversight hasn't been good for us EVER when it comes to the internet and our government. Actions speak louder than words, and their actions have clearly yelled they can't be trusted.
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