If you have watched the movie Enemy of the State you may have an idea about how an individual (role played by Will Smith) can be hounded by the government agencies if they put their resources to use. Will Smith’s character in the movie gets entangled in this messy situation due to no fault of his own. If you take a moment to imagine such a scenario, it’s quite frightening for a regular guy.

Marcus Thomas, the former Assistant Director of FBI’s Operational Technology Department recently spoke with the Washington Post and said FBI has been capable of recording images and videos from Webcams discreetly for years now. When a webcam is active a light next to it indicates that it is active, but the malware software which enables FBI to start the Webcam, disables this light, so the user has no idea that the webcam is active and broadcasting a live feed. FBI has been known to use such techniques in the past as well.

Such high-end tools which are called “Network Investigative Techniques” by the FBI are used only when the suspect is an expert in covering their tracks online. The software created by the elite FBI hacker team is quite powerful and is capable of covertly downloading files, photos, emails or monitor real-time activity.

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Use of this Technology is a Slippery Slope

Thomas pointed out that this particular technique is used only when there is a suspicion of terrorist activity or extremely serious criminal investigation. Unlike regular surveillance, online surveillance tends to gather a broad range of information and this pushes the boundaries of constitution’s limits on searches and seizures. If you compare this to a physical search, the entire contents of a room are captured and not specific items suspected to offer evidence of a crime.

A fishing expedition is not appreciated by the courts. “There needs to be a nexus between the crime being alleged and the material to be seized. What they are doing here, though, is collecting everything,” said Laura Donohue, a Georgetown University Law professor.

With the advent of technology and users moving to smartphones and using cloud-based applications, FBI’s technology continues to advance to the next level where it can be deployed on any device or platform when needed. “There’s the realization out there that they’re going to have to use these types of tools more and more,” said Thomas.

The report on Washington Post cites the example of Mo, who had sent threatening messages via email and calls about blowing up a building full of potential victims. He threatened to detonate bombs in jails, universities, airports and other public facilities. All the contact was via emails or VOIP and so FBI had no choice but to obtain a warrant to deliver their surveillance software to the suspect’s computer to determine his location and possibly what he plans to do. The case also highlighted the limits of the surveillance software and the legal issues when the location of the suspect is unknown.

Although the software didn’t work as required, it did send back some new IPs which showed that Mo was in fact in Iran. If he does come to the US, the FBI will have quite a lot of information on him. But the question remains how much is too much and if the government surveillance is getting out of hand.

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