The FBI hacked into more than 8,000 computers in 120 different countries with just a single warrant during an investigation into a dark web child pornography website, according to a newly published court filings.
This FBI’s mass hacking campaign is related to the high-profile child pornography Playpen case and represents the largest law enforcement hacking campaign known to date. The warrant was initially issued in February 2015 when the FBI seized the Playpen site and set up a sting operation on the dark web site, in which the agency deployed malware to obtain IP addresses from alleged site’s visitors.
The piece of malware used by the FBI is known as a Network Investigative Technique (NIT), which is essentially malware inserted into users’ computers by the FBI in order to gain control of a user’s personal computer.
The malware was used for at least 13 days to break into the computer of users who visited certain threads on Playpen and then sent their IP addresses back to the bureau.
Earlier this year, court documents related to the Playpen case revealed that the FBI hacked over 1,000 alleged visitors of Playpen in the U.S. using a single warrant, along with computers in Australia, Chile, Colombia, Austria, Denmark, Greece, the UK, Turkey, and Norway during the investigation.
However, the new federal court hearing transcript from a related case reveals that the hack went much further farther and wider than previously believed and that the bureau actually hacked into more than 8,000 users’ computers across 120 different countries.
“We have never, in our nation’s history as far as I can tell, seen a warrant so utterly sweeping,” federal public defender Colin Fieman said in a court hearing at the end of October, according to the transcript. According to the transcript, the FBI also hacked what has been described as a “data relay satellite.”
“So now we are into outer space as well,” Fieman said. “The fact that a single magistrate judge could authorize the FBI to hack 8,000 people in 120 countries is truly terrifying,” Christopher Soghoian, a principal technologist at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). “Since when does the FBI have the authorization to intrude into other sovereign country’s’ activities”?
The major controversy surrounding the Playpen case has been that Virginia-based US Magistrate Judge Theresa C. Buchanan who signed the warrant did not have the authority to authorize such searches in the first place.
The fact is that the magistrate judges are a more junior type of judges who don’t actually have jurisdiction to issue warrants outside their own districts. Only more senior federal judges, known as district judges, have the authority to issue such warrants under Rule 41. However, this would likely change with the changes introduced to the Rule 41 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure by the US Department of Justice.
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