Category Archives: NSA

A year after firestorm, DHS wants access to license-plate tracking system

A year after firestorm, DHS wants access to license-plate tracking system

A police car in Alexandria, Va., that has been equipped with a license-plate scanner. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

By Ellen Nakashima

The Department of Homeland Security is seeking bids from companies able to provide law enforcement officials with access to a national license-plate tracking system — a year after canceling a similar solicitation over privacy issues.

The reversal comes after officials said they had determined they could address concerns raised by civil liberties advocates and lawmakers about the prospect of the department’s gaining widespread access, without warrants, to a system that holds billions of records that reveal drivers’ whereabouts.

In a privacy impact assessment issued Thursday, the DHS says that it is not seeking to build a national database or contribute data to an existing system.

Instead, it is seeking bids from companies that already gather the data to say how much they would charge to grant access to law enforcement officers at Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a DHS agency. Officials said they also want to impose limits on ICE personnel’s access to and use of the data.

“These restrictions will provide essential privacy and civil liberty protections, while enhancing our agents’ and officers’ ability to locate and apprehend suspects who could pose a threat to national security and public safety,” DHS spokeswoman Marsha Catron said in a statement. The solicitation was posted publicly Thursday.

Privacy advocates who reviewed a copy of the privacy impact assessment said it fell short.

“If this goes forward, DHS will have warrantless access to location information going back at least five years about virtually every adult driver in the U.S., and sometimes to their image as well,” said Gregory T. Nojeim, senior counsel for the Center for Democracy & Technology.

Commercial license-plate tracking systems already are used by the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration, as well as some local and state law enforcement agencies. Law enforcement groups say the fears of misuse are overblown. But news of the DHS solicitation triggered a public firestorm last year, leading Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to cancel it and order a review of the privacy concerns raised by advocates and lawmakers.

Over the following months, ICE and DHS privacy officials developed policies aimed at increasing “the public’s trust in our ability to use the data responsibly,” according to a senior DHS privacy officer. The DHS is the first federal agency, officials said, to issue a privacy assessment on such a solicitation.

Commercial license-plate-tracking systems can include a variety of data. Images of plate numbers are generally captured by high-speed cameras that are mounted on vehicles or in fixed locations. Some systems also capture images of the drivers and passengers.

The largest commercial database is owned by Vigilant Solutions, which as of last fall had more than 2.5 billion records. Its database grows by 2.7 million records a day.

DHS officials say Vigilant’s database, to which some field offices have had access on a subscription basis, has proved valuable in solving years-old cases. Privacy advocates, however, are concerned about the potential for abuse and note that commercial data banks generally do not have limits on how long they retain data.

ICE said it will restrict agents’ access to the data to the number of years corresponding to the relevant statute of limitations for any crime being investigated. For civil immigration cases, where there is no statute of limitations, the agency is adopting a five-year limit, officials said.

ICE officers and agents also will be required to enter the type of crime associated with each query to gain access to the database, and there will be random audits to ensure that no one is using the database to look up information on personal associates. Officers and agents may search only for particular plate numbers.

ICE queries will not be shared with other agencies, unless they are working on a joint investigation, a senior DHS official said. ICE personnel also will be able to put plate numbers of interest on an “alert list,” enabling those personnel to be notified almost instantly when a plate is spotted.

Ginger McCall, director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center’s Open Government Project, said the new safeguards are not “meaningful.” She called the data retention requirements “exceedingly vague” and said tracking a person through alert lists without a warrant is troubling.

The senior DHS privacy officer said case law does not require the government to seek a warrant for such data.

“This is a step in the right direction, but it’s not nearly strong enough, given the particular acute privacy and civil liberties issues implicated by locational data,” McCall said.

Is NYC’s new gunshot detection system recording private conversations?

Is NYC’s new gunshot detection system recording private conversations?

Michael Brown in Ferguson Missouri shot dead

As Tyrone Lyles lay dying from a gunshot wound on an East Oakland street in 2007, he let out a few last words that would ultimately help authorities convict his killer.

“Why you done me like that, Ar?” he pleaded. “Ar, why you do me like that, dude?”

The exchange, which was used in court, was recorded by ShotSpotter, a gunshot detection system that has been installed in over 90 cities across the country. By placing a series of microphones around high-crime neighborhoods, the system is able to pinpoint the location of where a gunshot took place with surprising accuracy, leading to faster response times from police.

This week, 300 of the microphones were activated in Brooklyn and the Bronx as part of a citywide pilot program.

“Today, we are rolling out cutting edge technology to make the city safer, to make our neighborhoods safer, to keep our officers safer,” NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio said in an appearance with police commissioner William J. Bratton to announce the initiative. “This gunshot detection system is going to do a world of good in terms of going after the bad guys.”

But cases in which microphones have picked up incriminating evidence have raised the eyebrows of privacy advocates, who note that there could be Fourth Amendment implications.

“We are always concerned about secondary uses of technology that is sold to us for some unobjectionable purpose and is then used for other purposes,” Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, told Take Part. “If [ShotSpotter] is recording voices out in public, it needs to be shut down.”

A 2013 investigation of ShotSpotter devices in Newark, NJ, found that 75 percent of the gunshot alerts had been for false alarms.– WNYC

On its website, ShotSpotter claims that its microphones “do not have the ability to overhear normal speech or conversations on public streets,” and says that it does not offer an audio livestreaming service for police departments. Only two seconds before a gunshot and four seconds after a gunshot are recorded, the company claims.

“In all cases [where voices have been recorded], the words were yelled loudly, in a public place, at the scene of a gunfire-related crime, and within a few seconds of that event,” the company writes. “The simple fact is that there has never been a case of a private conversation overheard or monitored by any ShotSpotter sensor anywhere at any time. Period.”

However, the company’s microphones have a history of not being as precise as the company claims. A 2013 WNYC investigation of ShotSpotter devices in Newark, NJ, found that 75 percent of the gunshot alerts had been for false alarms, meaning that audio clips were taken when there is likely no crime in progress. In those instances, police were still deployed to the area.

In the most recent case of a ShotSpotter voice recording being used in a criminal trial, the microphones picked up parts of a street argument just before a murder in New Bedford, Connecticut. “No, Jason! No, Jason!” someone could be heard in the recording before shots were fired. Two men—Jason Denison and Jonathan Flores were arrested and convicted of the murder. Though other evidence was presented at trial, the audio recording was used to corroborate the witness testimony.

It’s hard to argue with that outcome, but the case does bring some troubling questions to mind. If there was never gunfire, would law enforcement officials still have had access to that audio recording of the argument? How would they have used or acted upon it? And if such a large amount of ShotSpotter calls are for false alarms, how much ambient noise from the neighborhood are police at headquarters listening in to?

At the time, ShotSpotter spokeswoman Lydia Barrett emphasized how rare it was that the devices had picked up an argument.

“This is a very unusual circumstance if (the sensors) actually picked up any voices,” Barrett said. “In particular, I can’t ever remember in the history of our technology the sensors ever hearing a fight or some kind of argument going on.”

“There is no expectation of privacy on the street when you’re outside yelling on a public street,” Former Bristol County District Attorney C. Samuel Sutter (who is now the city’s Mayor) said about the New Bedford case, noting that the confrontation woke up neighbors even before shots rang out.

In New York City, Letitia James, the city’s public advocate, has introduced a bill to the city council to require quarterly reports on the data gathered by the new systems in Brooklyn and the Bronx. There has not been any legislation looking at the privacy implications of the technology.

Feds Raid Conservative Texas Political Meeting, Confiscate Phones, Computers

Feds Raid Conservative Texas Political Meeting, Confiscate Phones, Computers

Fingerprint, photograph all attendees, seize phones

fbi

In a deliberate “show of force,” federal and local police forces raided a political meeting in Texas, fingerprinting and photographing all attendees as well as confiscating all cell phones and personal recording devices.

Members of the Republic of Texas, a secession movement dedicated to restoring Texas as an independent constitutional republic, had gathered Feb. 14 in a Bryan, Texas, meeting hall along with public onlookers. They were debating issues of currency, international relations and celebrating the birthday of one of their oldest members. The group, which describes itself as “congenial and unimposing,” maintains a small working government, including official currency, congress and courts.

According to MySanAntonio.com: “Minutes into the meeting a man among the onlookers stood and moved to open the hall door, letting in an armed and armored force of the Bryan Police Department, the Brazos County Sheriff’s Office, the Kerr County Sheriff’s Office, agents of the Texas district attorney, the Texas Rangers and the FBI.

“In the end, at least 20 officers corralled, searched and fingerprinted all 60 meeting attendees, before seizing all cellphones and recording equipment in a Valentine’s Day 2015 raid on the Texas separatist group.”

“We had no idea what was going on,” said John Jarnecke, president of the Republic of Texas. “We knew of nothing that would warrant such an action.”

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Information Liberation noted, “The pretext of the raid was that two individuals from the group had reportedly sent out ‘simulated court documents’ — summonses for a judge and a banker to appear before the Republic of Texas to discuss the matter of a foreclosure. These ‘simulated documents’ were rejected and the authorities decided to react with a ‘show of force’ – 20 officers and an extremely broad search warrant.”

The invalid court summons was signed by Susan Cammak, a Kerr County homeowner, and David Kroupa, a Republic of Texas judge from Harris County.

The search warrant against the Republic of Texas authorized the seizure of “all computers, media storage, software, cell phones and paper documents.” Kerr County Sheriff Rusty Hierholzer said the seized devices “will be downloaded and reviewed to determine if others conspired in the creation and issuance of false court documents.”

Police searched and fingerprinted each person at the meeting, but they did not perform cheek-swab DNA testing as the warrant allowed.

“You can’t just let people go around filing false documents to judges trying to make them appear in front of courts that aren’t even real courts,” Hierholzer, who led the operation, told the Houston Chronicle.

“The Republic has a lengthy list of qualms with the federal government, among them that Texas was illegally annexed in 1845,” wrote TeaParty.org. “But most of their complaints have to do with the behavior of the American legislature and executive. Robert Wilson, a senator in the Republic, equated politicians in Washington, D.C., to the ‘kings and emperors’ of the past, and sees Texas independence as part of a worldwide movement for local control.”

Hierholzer determined a “show of force” consisting of officers from city, county state and federal law enforcement to serve a search warrant for an alleged misdemeanor crime was appropriate due to the potential for physical resistance by the group.

The Houston Chronicle reports, “He said he had worries that some extremists in the group could become violent, citing a 1997 incident when 300 state troopers surrounded an armed Republic leader for a weeklong standoff.”

“Contrary to patently false reports by KBTX that the Republic of Texas and its assemblage were a militia group,” states the Republic of Texas website, “the truth is that the Republic of Texas is a self-determined people attempting to throw off the yoke of military occupation of Texas through peaceful and lawful process.”

“We’ve had years of bad press, but we’re not those people,” said Jarnecke of the 1997 incident. “But yes, we are still making every attempt to get independence for Texas and we’re doing it in a lawful international manner.”

The raid has angered many people. “The tactics used went well beyond what was necessary to address a few individuals over a matter of disputed paperwork,” reported Information Liberation. “It is clear that full-blown raid was performed to intimidate and harass every member of the group. … The irony of the situation is that the thuggish tactics employed by the police and federal government actually validate the concerns of the members of the Republic of Texas and other Americans who would prefer independence from the United States federal government.”

No arrests were made, and the case is still under investigation.

White House cuts off information sharing programs with Israel

White House cuts off information sharing programs with Israel

The State Column, Tom Sherman

White House cuts off information sharing programs with Israel

The U.S./Israeli relationship has taken another awkward turn after White House press secretary Josh Earnest admitted the White House needed to quarantine Israel from any information regarding the current nuclear talks with Iran.

The level of diplomacy between the Obama and Netanyahu administrations has hit a new low Wednesday after the White House admitted that they are purposefully withholding information from the Israelis after repeated leaks to the media. White House press secretary Josh Earnest called to the repeated leaks as “a continued practice of cherry-picking” and criticized the Israelis for publicly trying to undermine the negotiations.

“There’s no question that some of the things that the Israelis have said in characterizing our negotiating position have not been accurate,” said Earnest. “There’s no question about that.”

The repeated incidents have hampered negotiations between the U.S., Iran and the five world powers, and frustrated both White House and State Department officials trying to broker a deal with very thin margins. According to the Charlotte Observer, senior officials in the White House blame Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for “changing the dynamic” of a once solid relationship.

“[The Israelis] tell part of the story, like how many centrifuges we might consider letting the Iranians hold,” said one American official, who spoke to the New York Times on the condition of anonymity as not to interfere with current negotiations between the State Department and Tehran. “What they don’t tell you is that we only let them have that many centrifuges if they ship most of their fuel out of the country.”

However, Earnest did try to keep a diplomatic tone towards the normally staunch ally. Over the past few weeks, a strained U.S./Israeli relationship has been showcased very publicly, as the respective heads of state have feuded via standoffish media stories.

“I think it is fair to say that the United States is mindful of the need to not negotiate in public and ensure that information that’s discussed in the negotiating table is not taken out of context and publicized in a way that distorts the negotiating position of the United States and our allies,” said Earnest.

Besides vowing to “thwart” any nuclear deal that Israel did not approve of, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accepted an invitation to address a joint session of Congress from Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH), unbeknownst to the Obama administration, which is a breach of standard protocol and courtesy visiting executives usually afford each other.

Reporter Interviews Edward Snowden, Dies Suddenly Later That Night

Reporter Interviews Edward Snowden, Dies Suddenly Later That Night

By 

[Watch] Reporter Interviews Edward Snowden, Dies Suddenly Later That Night

Described as the finest media reporter of his generation, remarkable and funny, and a leader in the newsroom, New York Time‘s columnist David Carr, 58, was remembered by his colleagues after he collapsed in the newsroom and died suddenly last Thursday night.

Earlier in the evening on the day Carr died, he had moderated a TimesTalks discussion ofCitizenFour, the Oscar nominated documentary about whistle-blower Edward Snowden, the man who gave up life as he knew it to expose the global surveillance program perpetrated by the United States government.

“For now, know that every border you cross, every purchase you make, every call you dial, every cell phone tower you pass, friend you keep, site you visit, subject line you type, is in the hands of a system whose reach is unlimited but who’s safeguards are not. In the end if you publish this source material I will likely be immediately implicated.” – Edward Snowden, CitizenFour

[Watch] Reporter Interviews Edward Snowden, Dies Suddenly Later That Night

The discussion panel was comprised of Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who first published Snowden’s findings, Academy Award nominee and Pulitzer prize-winning director Laura Poitras, and Edward Snowden, who attended via live video feed from Russia.

Watch Carr’s last interview:

During the interview, Carr asked Snowden how he felt about putting his life at stake.

“I think everyone involved has paid some cost or another,” Snowden humbly replied.  “I can’t live with my family nowadays, I can’t go back to my home.. there’s a lot of things, but it’s incredibly satisfying to be a part of something larger than yourself. And there is a tremendous sense of peace that comes from doing what you believe is the right thing to do.”

Later, Carr asked Greenwald about our world ranking in relation to freedom of the press.Reporters Without Borders finds that the United States sits in the high 40’s in the rankings; edged out by El Salvador, Botswana, and France, just to name a few. The ranking of some countries has been affected by a tendency to interpret national security needs in an overly broad and abusive manner to the detriment of the right to inform and be informed. This trend constitutes a growing threat worldwide and is even endangering freedom of information in countries regarded as democracies, such as the United States.

“We are leading the free world from the rank of 49.” Greenwald commented sarcastically.

Also mentioned, Snowden waited before he leaked the NSA’s spying protocol. He wanted to see what Obama was really all about, if he was truly serious about a transparent presidency or not. Carr had also wondered. They came to the conclusion that Obama’s administration is the worst in our history in terms of transparency.

During the interview’s wrap-up, free options that ordinary citizens can use to keep their privacy more secure by protecting their transmissions were mentioned, such as phone encryption and the TOR browser.

Snowden then candidly reminded watchers that if the government targets you specifically, they won’t just catch things as they pass by on the Internet, they will embed themselves into your devices; your smart phone, your computer, even ‘your new Samsung tv, they’re listening to you as it sits in your living room.’

Snowden insisted that we need to create standards that protect everyone and we need to enforce them. Also, we need to enforce our rights. Snowden called on companies like Googleand Facebook to stand up and protect their users rights, saying, “If the government wants to investigate someone, they need to do it the old-fashioned way.”

[Watch] Reporter Interviews Edward Snowden, Dies Suddenly Later That Night

An autopsy has since revealed that David Carr died from complications from lung cancer and heart disease. His conversational, analytic, and humorous writing style will be missed by his readers and colleagues. He was a reporter’s reporter, Carr didn’t just write about journalism — he practiced it, taking on media heavyweights with in-depth pieces that exposed wrongdoing.

‘Equation’ cyberspies use unrivaled, NSA-style techniques to hit Iran, Russia

‘Equation’ cyberspies use unrivaled, NSA-style techniques to hit Iran, Russia

By

equation cyberspies
A group of cyberspies called Equation that uses similar techniques as the NSA has struck at least 30 countries using never-before-seen malware that infects hard disk drives. Credit: Screenshot courtesy of Kaspersky Labs

The group’s attack on hard-drive firmware is one of the most advanced ever discovered, Kaspersky Lab said.

A cyberespionage group with a toolset similar to ones used by U.S. intelligence agencies has infiltrated key institutions in countries including Iran and Russia.

Kaspersky Lab released a report Monday that said the tools were created by the “Equation” group, which it stopped short of linking to the U.S. National Security Agency.

The tools, exploits and malware used by the group — named after its penchant for encryption — have strong similarities with NSA techniques described in top-secret documents leaked in 2013.

Countries hit the most by Equation include Iran, Russia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and China. Targets in those countries included the military, telecommunications, embassies, government, research institutions and Islamic scholars, Kaspersky said.

Kaspersky’s most striking finding is Equation’s ability to infect the firmware of a hard drive, or the low-level code that acts as an interface between hardware and software.

The malware reprograms the hard drive’s firmware, creating hidden sectors on the drive that can only be accessed through a secret API (application programming interface). Once installed, the malware is impossible to remove: disk formatting and reinstalling the OS doesn’t affect it, and the hidden storage sector remains.

“Theoretically, we were aware of this possibility, but as far as I know this is the only case ever that we have seen of an attacker having such an incredibly advanced capability,” said Costin Raiu, director of Kaspersky Lab’s global research and analysis team, in a phone interview Monday.

Drives made by Seagate Technology, Western Digital Technologies, Hitachi, Samsung Electronics and Toshiba can be modified by two of Equation’s hard disk drive malware platforms, “Equationdrug” and “Grayfish.”

The report said Equation has knowledge of the drives that goes way beyond public documentation released by vendors.

Equation knows sets of unique ATA commands used by hard drive vendors to format their products. Most ATA commands are public, as they comprise a standard that ensures a hard drive is compatible with just about any kind of computer.

But there are undocumented ATA commands used by vendors for functions such as internal storage and error correction, Raiu said. “In essence, they are a closed operating system,” he said.

Obtaining such specific ATA codes would likely require access to that documentation, which could cost a lot of money, Raiu said.

The ability to reprogram the firmware of just one kind of drive would be “incredibly complex,” Raiu. Being able to do that for many kinds of drives from many brands is “close to impossible,” he said.

“To be honest, I don’t think there’s any other group in the world that has this capability,” Raiu said.

It appears Equation has been far, far ahead of the security industry. It’s almost impossible to detect this kind of tampering, Raiu said. Reflashing the drive, or replacing its firmware, is also not foolproof, since some types of modules in some types of firmware are persistent and can’t be reformatted, he said.

Given the high value of this exploitation technique, Equation very selectively deployed it.

“During our research, we’ve only identified a few victims who were targeted by this,” Kaspersky’s report said. “This indicates that it is probably only kept for the most valuable victims or for some very unusual circumstances.”

Another of Kaspersky’s intriguing findings is Fanny, a computer worm created in 2008 that was used against targets in the Middle East and Asia.

To infect computers, Fanny used two zero-day exploits — the term for a software attack that uses an unknown software vulnerability — that were also coded into Stuxnet, Kaspersky said. Stuxnet, also a Windows worm, was used to sabotage Iran’s uranium enrichment operations. It is thought to be a joint project between the U.S. and Israel.

It’s unlikely the use of the same zero-days was a coincidence. Kaspersky wrote that the similar use of the vulnerabilities means that the Equation group and the Stuxnet developers are “either the same or working closely together.”

“They are definitely connected,” Raiu said.

Both Stuxnet and Fanny were designed to penetrate “air-gapped” networks, or those isolated from the Internet, Kaspersky said.

The Equation group also used “interdiction” techniques similar to those used by the NSA in order to deliver malicious software to targets.

Kaspersky described how some participants of a scientific conference held in Houston later received a CD-ROM of materials. The CD contained two zero-day exploits and a rarely-seen malware doorstop nicknamed “Doublefantasy.”

It is unknown how the CDs were tampered with or replaced. “We do not believe the conference organizers did this on purpose,” Kaspersky said. But such a combination of exploits and malware “don’t end up on a CD by accident,” it said.

The NSA’s Office of Tailored Access Operations (TAO) specializes in intercepting deliveries of new computer equipment, one of the most successful methods of tapping into computers, wrote Der Spiegel in December 2013, citing a top secret document.

The German publication was one of several that had access to tens of thousands of spy agency documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

Kaspersky uncovered the trail of the Equation group after investigating a computer belonging to a research institute in the Middle East that appeared to be the Typhoid Mary for advanced malware.

Raiu said the machine had French, Russian and Spanish APT (advanced persistent threat) samples on it among others, showing it had been targeted by many groups. It also had a strange malicious driver, Raiu said, which upon investigation lead to the extensive command-and-control infrastructure used by Equation.

Kaspersky analysts found more than 300 domains connected with Equation, with the oldest one registered in 1996. Some of the domain name registrations were due to expire, so Kaspersky registered around 20 of them, Raiu said.

Most of the domain names aren’t used by Equation anymore, he said. But three are still active. The activity, however, doesn’t lend much of a clue as to what Equation is up to these days, as the group changed its tactics in late 2013.

“Those three [domains] are very interesting,” Raiu said. “We just don’t know what malware is being used.”

Send news tips and comments to jeremy_kirk@idg.com. Follow me on Twitter: @jeremy_kirk

FBI Says Doesn’t Need Warrant To Track Your Cell Phone

FBI Says Doesn’t Need Warrant To Track Your Cell Phone

Practically nothing to protect citizens’ Fourth Amendment rights

The FBI Says It Doesn’t Need a Warrant to Track Your Cell Phone in Public

The FBI claims that it doesn’t need a warrant to use so-called Stingray cell-phone tracking technology in public spaces, according to two US Senators raising privacy concerns over use of the devices.

Stingrays and similar devices intercept data by emulating a cell phone tower, say privacy groups. With the briefcase-size technology, police can identify and locate cell phone users in a general area or search for a specific person while also vacuuming upmetadata from phones.

The FBI recently settled on a new policy surrounding the use of Stingrays and similar technology that requires agents to obtain a warrant before using the technology in a criminal investigation. However, the policy includes such broad exceptions that privacy advocates worry they do practically nothing to protect citizens’ Fourth Amendment rights.

The new policy was first revealed by former Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy and the then ranking Republican on the committee, Chuck Grassley—who has since become chairman—in a letter to the Justice Department and Department of Homeland Security released at the end of December.

In the letter, Leahy and Grassley question whether law enforcement agencies using cell-phone-tracking technology “have adequately considered the privacy interests of other individuals who are not targets of the inception, but whose
information is nevertheless being collected when these devices are used.”

The Wall Street Journal reported in November that the US Marshals Service was using cell-phone-tracking technology in small aircraft to search for criminal suspects, sweeping up thousands of other cell phone signals in the process.

Law enforcement agencies purchase Stingrays and similar devices—technically called International Mobile Subscriber Identity catchers—through federal grants under the auspices of anti-terrorism operations. Police say the technology can also be used for search-and-rescue operations, in kidnapping situations, and disaster response.

According to Leahy and Grassley, the FBI’s new policy contains an exception for “cases that pose an imminent danger to public safety, cases that involve a fugitive, or cases in which the technology is used in public places or other locations at which the FBI deems there is no reasonable expectation of privacy.”

Hanni Fakhoury, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said in a statement to VICE that it “seems that a carve out to allow the FBI to use an IMSI catcher in public without a warrant is an exception that swallows the rule.”

Fakhoury said the FBI’s new policy is “a good first step towards transparency, but there need to be a lot more information made public about how these devices are used.

“First, what was happening before the change in policy?” Fakhoury continued. “If the new policy requires the FBI to get a warrant to use the device but has an exception for when the device is in public use, does that mean the feds were using IMSI catchers to capture signals emanating from the home, a place clearly protected by the Fourth Amendment? Second, what is the requirement for FBI’s use of these devices in public places, which is presumably where the bulk of these devices are used?”

Leahy and Grassley are pressing the Justice Department for more details on the privacy implications of the technology.

“The Judiciary Committee needs a broader understanding of the full range of law enforcement agencies that use this technology, the policies in place to protect the privacy interests of those whose information might be collected using these devices, and the legal process that DOJ and DHS entities seek prior to using them,” Leahy and Grassley wrote in their letter to Attorney General Eric Holder and DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson.

Reports of police departments using Stingrays first surfaced in December 2013, whenUSA Today reported that cell phone surveillance technology originally designed for the US military was finding its way into state and local police departments across the country.

Since that report, the ACLU has unearthed public records showing police departments and federal law enforcement in 19 states and the District of Columbia are using IMSI catchers.

Transparency groups and news organizations trying to dig up more information on Stingrays have been stymied by an aggressive effort from federal agents, local police departments, and the company that manufactures the devices.

Earlier this year in Sarasota, Florida, the US Marshals Service confiscated records on Stingray surveillance from a courthouse just hours before the records were due to be handed over to the ACLU.

In September, a public records request revealed state and local police must sign a non-disclosure agreement with the FBI, keeping details of the devices secret.

Prosecutors in Baltimore went so far as to toss key evidence in a case rather than reveal details of how police used a Stingray to track the defendant.

The FBI and DHS did not immediately respond to requests for comment. In a statement to VICE, the Justice Department said only that it is reviewing Leahy and Grassley’s letter, which calls for a response to their concerns by the end of the month.

Follow CJ Ciaramella on Twitter.

FBI Not Obtaining Search Warrants When Ease Dropping On Everyone’s Cellphones

FBI Not Obtaining Search Warrants When Ease Dropping On Everyone’s Cellphones

Agency claims citizens’ cell phone data up for grabs
FBI Stingray device technology listening cell phones
FBI Stingray device

Two U.S. Senators attempting to investigate government use of cellphone interceptors, commonly referred to as “Stingrays,” have confirmed that no search warrants are obtained when FBI agents use the devices in public.

Senators Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) discovered the startling information last year during a private briefing in which agency officials laid out a list of warrant exemptions.

In a letter to Homeland Security Chief Jeh Johnson and Attorney General Eric Holder, both Senators expressed their concerns over the wildly broad exemptions and questioned whether seperate government agencies were following the same policy.

For example, we understand that the FBI’s new policy requires FBI agents to obtain a search warrant whenever a cell-site simulator is used as part of a FBI investigation or operation, unless one of several exceptions apply, including (among others): (1) cases that pose an imminent danger to public safety, (2) cases that involve a fugitive, or (3) cases in which the technology is used in public places or other locations at which the FBI deems there is no reasonable expectation of privacy.

FBI Stingray device technology listening cell phones
Regardless of the guideline, the FBI has failed to explain how they protect cell users on private property when bulk collecting in public.

“We have concerns about the scope of the exceptions,” the letter states. “Specifically, we are concerned about whether the FBI and other law enforcement agencies have adequately considered the privacy interests of other individuals who are not the targets of the interception, but whose information is nevertheless being collected when these devices are being used.”

The letter goes on to demand answers on how often the FBI and other agencies use Stingrays and what, if any, safeguards are in place to protect the data of innocent Americans.

“Across all DOJ and DHS entities, what protections exist to safeguard the privacy interests of individuals who are not the targets of interception, but whose information is nevertheless being collected by cell-site simulators?” the letter asks.

Despite claims from government entities that Stingrays are only used to investigate high-profile crimes, continued exposure on the topic proves the complete opposite to be true.

Police scanner audio obtained by the hacktivist group Anonymous last month appeared to reveal that Chicago police were using a Stingray to intercept phone calls from an Eric Garner protester.

A police department in Washington state, which claimed that it only used a Stingray to investigate crimes such as homicide, rape and kidnapping, used the device to track a missing city laptop according to a report last August.

City Council members who initially approved the department’s acquisition of the Stingray were told by police that the device was simply for “detecting IEDs,” ignoring the device’s main purpose regarding cell data.

Law enforcement groups in California have already begun applying for even more powerful cell interceptors known as “Hailstorms.”

On the federal level, government agencies have gone as far as equipping airplanes with cell interceptors to harvest cellular data from the sky.

Despite the federal government’s best attempts to hide its surveillance activities from judges, the public and the Legislative, Americans for the first time are beginning to realize the scope of the US surveillance state.

Private Intel Firm Briefs FBI: Sony Hack Likely An Inside Job, Not North Korea

Private Intel Firm Briefs FBI: Sony Hack Likely An Inside Job, Not North Korea

sony hack building

FBI agents were briefed Monday by one of the world’s leading cyber intelligence firms, who claim that the evidence being gathered in connection with the November 24 cyberattack against Sony Pictures Entertainment points to a former employee of the studio, rather than North Korea, as the perpetrator of the hack.

The cyber intelligence firm Norse told the FBI in the afternoon briefing that evidence suggests the hack, which saw thousands of sensitive company documents as well as five unreleased feature films leaked online, was a coordinated effort between a former Sony employee and hackers for piracy groups, according to Politico.

“When the FBI made the announcement so soon after the initial hack was unveiled, everyone in the [cyber] intelligence community kind of raised their eyebrows at it, because it’s really hard to pin this on anyone within days of the attack,” Norse senior vice president of market development, Kurt Stammberger, told Politico.

Stammberger added that the FBI was “very open and grateful for our data and assistance.”

The FBI issued a statement Monday reiterating its conclusion that North Korea was behind the cyberattack.

The FBI has concluded the Government of North Korea is responsible for the theft and destruction of data on the network of Sony Pictures Entertainment. Attribution to North Korea is based on intelligence from the FBI, the U.S. intelligence community, DHS, foreign partners, and the private sector. There is no credible information to indicate that any other individual is responsible for this cyber incident.

A hacking group called Guardians of Peace has claimed credit for the cyber attack. On December 16, the group posted a message threatening “9-11″ style terror attacks on movie theaters that had signed up to screen the Sony Pictures comedy The Interview, which depicts the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

According to Politico, the FBI considered that a former Sony employee could be behind the attack, but ultimately rejected the possibility.

Other private security firms are reportedly questioning the FBI’s key evidence; namely, that the malicious code used in the attack against Sony was also used in a 2013 cyber attack against South Korea, and that the language settings of the computer used to write the code were set to Korean.

Errata Security’s Robert Graham previously called the FBI’s evidence “nonsense,” arguing that hacking groups were likely to share code with each other. CloudFare security researcher and DefCon official Marc Rogers agreed, writing that “while some of these similarities certainly strongly hint at a similar operation and a shared DNA between these pieces of malware, it is hardly a smoking gun.”

Norse’s Stammberger told Politico he agrees with his peers in the intelligence community.

“We think that we would have seen some key indicators by now in our investigation that would point to the North Koreans,” Stammberger said. “We don’t see those data points. So if they’ve got them, they should share some of them at least with the community and make a more convincing case.”

The FBI is reportedly still treating the incident as an “active criminal investigation,” and, as policy, will not comment further until the investigation is complete.