The United States Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has been caught spending millions of dollars on spyware tools produced by the controversial Italian surveillance company, Hacking Team, according to new reports.
A software known as, Remote Control System or “RC5,” is capable of intercepting phone calls, texts, social media conversations and can covertly switch on a user’s webcam and microphone with the ability to record conversations and collect passwords throughout the computer.
Newly released government records detail the agency placing an order for the RC5 software at a $2.4 million contract pricetag. The software has the capability of infecting the device to capture texts, emails, passwords and could even tap on the microphone and record audio. The use of law enforcement spyware is shaky, but officials typically require a warrant before any of the programs can be setup. However, documents reveal a number of agencies have bypassed that requirement to abuse their newly purchased hacking tools.
The source of the spyware is what makes the DEA’s purchase extremely shady. Records details the DEA purchasing the spyware from Cicom USA, but Vice sources say Cicom is a reseller of the Italian Hacking Team’s tools, products which have been tailored towards government agencies as early as 2011. The company has sold to governments worldwide, including Morocco, Ethiopia, and the United Arab Emirates.
According to public records, the DEA originally made its purchase for the surveillance software back in August 2012. The contract, which public records show is scheduled to be completed August 2015, is identified as a “Remote Controlled Host Based Interception System.”
The publicly revealed contract identified the FBI is not the only government entity outside the NSA involved in government hacking, yet it showed the DEA has been illegally purchasing malware to be used against suspected criminals for years.
According to some tech experts, the DEA’s direct ties with the Hacking Team show that tools once meant to be strictly used by military and government agencies, such as drones and Stingrays, have since become mundane to law enforcement agencies around the nation.
Though the Hacking Team is based out of Italy, rumors claim that the Hacking Team has an office in the United States, but there has yet to be proof the company has ever done business on U.S. soil. Though, the CEO, David Vincenzetti, boasted in an interview of having clients in more than 40 countries, including the United States.
Italian Hacking Team’s spokesperson, Eric Rabe, chose not to comment on the possible existence of a contract with the DEA, saying: “We don’t identify our clients. I’m certainly not going to comment whether the DEA or anyone else has purchased Hacking Team software.”
According to internal dealings with the DEA, Cicom USA was the only company available that could provide the services desired, based on internally conducted researcher within the agency.
Surveillance experts questioned how the DEA had legal authority to use the spyware purchased from the Hacking Team, and how exactly it would be justified. A DEA spokesperson told Vice, the agency “always abides by the laws of the jurisdictions within which it operates.” With no further comment on how such claims are evaluated.
Though, the DEA didn’t forget to add, “however, in this case, this is off-the-shelf technology, legally available for purchase by all and used throughout the world by many organizations.”
Experts are still not convinced, yet, some legal experts point out that there is nothing illegal about the use of spyware. Although there is no official law that governs hacking, law enforcement agencies are often “broadly authorized” to conduct searches in the United States, even if it includes hacking, Jonathan Mayer, computer scientist and lawyer at Stanford University said.
Though, experts such as Christopher Soghoian, the principle technologist at the American Civil Liberties Union, state there should be more clarity on the topic.
“If law enforcement agencies can hack into your computer, turn on your webcam, turn on your microphone and steal documents from your computer,” Soghoian said, “that’s the kind of thing that should get the attention of Congress, particularly before this trickles down to local law enforcement agencies.”