The FBI Has Been Hacking Our Computers For 20 Years

Wired recently issued a report documenting all of the instances that we know of when the FBI has spied on the public over the last 20 years.

In a handy article, Wired has listed a few case studies of the government’s most well-known hacking operations for the last 20 years, some more intensely invasive than others. The tools used by the FBI and the spying operations conducted are still mostly shrouded in mystery, but Wired has led several investigations which have identified some of these privacy hacks.


Federal and state judges are required to submit a report to Congress which details the number of and type of wiretaps that they have requested, but there is no public account of how often the FBI hacks people.

The government, however, does not like the use of the word “hacking” for this invasion of privacy, but rather prefers terms including “remote access searches” or Network Investigative Techniques (NIT). Arguably, the term “hacking” implies an illegal act, and the government wants to be clear that they have permission to search whatever computer or phone they would like as long as they have issued a search warrant.

Some of the computer surveillance conducted by the FBI seems relatively benign, such as hijacking a computer’s IP address or information from the computer registry.

But, as in a 2013 search request, the FBI sought permission to activate targeted computer’s web cam to take remote pictures and video. This could be useful when the government is trying to prosecute for child pornography, for example, but the prospect of that kind of invasion of privacy still seems threatening.

The recent changes to Rule 41 state that the FBI has permission to hack any computer with a warrant.

The bottom line is that federal spying on the public isn’t new, despite the headlines about Congress changing federal criminal court procedures regarding public surveillance.

Wired introduces some interesting questions surrounding the ethics of government computer surveillance, even when it is monitored by a federal court.

When a computer is hacked, how does the FBI control what information they are receiving? What do they do with the unnecessary information? Once the information sought is obtained, what happens to the spyware that they installed on the computer system? Does it remain there indefinitely?

While we may not know much, Wired certainly opened the door for the public to ask more questions.


Banner image credit: Facebook user, Shaoli Lin

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