FBI used hacking software decade before iPhone fight

The New York Times reports: In early 2003, F.B.I. agents hit a roadblock in a secret investigation, called Operation Trail Mix. For months, agents had been intercepting phone calls and emails belonging to members of an animal welfare group that was believed to be sabotaging operations of a company that was using animals to test drugs. But encryption software had made the emails unreadable.

So investigators tried something new. They persuaded a judge to let them remotely, and secretly, install software on the group’s computers to help get around the encryption.

That effort, revealed in newly declassified and released records, shows in new detail how F.B.I. hackers worked to defeat encryption more than a decade before the agency’s recent fight with Apple over access to a locked iPhone. The Trail Mix case was, in some ways, a precursor to the Apple dispute. In both cases, the agents could not decode the data themselves, but found a clever workaround.

The Trail Mix records also reveal what is believed to be the first example of the F.B.I. remotely installing surveillance software, known as spyware or malware, as part of a criminal wiretap.

“This was the first time that the Department of Justice had ever approved such an intercept of this type,” an F.B.I. agent wrote in a 2005 document summing up the case.

The next year, six activists were convicted of conspiracy to violate the Animal Enterprise Protection Act in the case. An appeals court upheld the convictions in 2009, and said that the use of encryption, among other things, was “circumstantial evidence of their agreement to participate in illegal activity.”

Ryan Shapiro, a national security researcher and animal welfare advocate, provided the documents in the case to The New York Times after obtaining them in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. Several important details remain secret, including whether the tactic worked. The wiretap was disclosed at trial but the software hacking was not, said Lauren Gazzola, one of the defendants, who now works for the Center for Constitutional Rights. [Continue reading…]

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