In one of the most infamous mass hacking operations conducted by the U.S. Federal agency, the FBI, court documents had initially revealed that over 1,000 computers from users based in the United States had been compromised.
However, the recently released court documents have revealed that the figures and the sheer magnitude of the hacking operation had been largely understated by the initial court documentation.
The recently published court filings revealed that, with just a single warrant obtained from Magistrate Judge Theresa C. Buchanan, the FBI managed to hack into over 8,000 computers in 120 different countries, including the US, Chile, Australia, Colombia, Denmark, Turkey and the UK.
There has been a considerable amount of outrage and consequential occurrences following the revelation, including the dismissal of evidence from several child exploitation cases.
The Playpen Saga
The investigations in question were conducted by the FBI back in February 2015 when they seized a dark web child pornographic website, Playpen.
After running it on government servers for about two weeks, they deployed a malware called Network Investigative Technique (NIT); a malware that infected the computers of all the users who visited the site which could circumvent Tor’s anonymizing features and display the user’s real IP address.
It is in this manner that the mass hacking operation was able to obtain over 8,000 IP addresses in 120 countries.
A Baffling First
Federal public defender Colin Fieman expressed his amazement at the fact that one warrant could be so far-reaching.
Fieman, who is representing several of the accused in the Playpen cases, said that it was definitely a first in the history of the United States as far as he knows.
In the court transcripts from the October hearings, Fieman also mentioned how the FBI hacked into a satellite provider.
Christopher Soghoian, a principal technologist at the American Civil Liberties Union and a testifier in Playpen cases (for the defense), was the first to express fear at the prospect of a single judge having the power to authorize hacking operations of such magnitude.
He, however, took a realist’s stance when he said that with the changes to Rule 41, such mass hacking incidences will become the norm.
Mass Hacking Operation Sparks Intense Battles at the DOJ
The US Department of Justice has come under fire over the past few months following the authorization of the mass hacking campaign.
Dozens of lawyers from all over the US challenged the legitimacy of the warrant that authorized the mass hacking.
In 14 consequent court cases pertaining to the mass hacking operations, it was concluded that the issuance of the warrant did not comply with the governing of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure Rule 41.
Perhaps the most disputed aspect of the warrant issued to authorize the mass hacking is that the magistrate judge in question is based in the Eastern District of Virginia and as such, has no power to legitimize searches outside of her jurisdiction.
As a result of the disputed decisions concerning the hacking methods used to obtain evidence in the Playpen operation, evidence has now been dismissed from some of the cases.
Rule 41 Will Make Mass Hacking a Reality
As much as there is outrage over the sheer violation of Rule 41 in the FBI hacking operation, as changes to the legislation take effect, the issuance of warrants to authorize mass hacking operations of this magnitude will be allowed.
The changes to Rule 41 will most likely increase the motivation and the reach of federal agencies such as the FBI.
It would then be only a matter of time before mass hacking techniques are employed on dark web marketplaces.