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In Child Porn Bust, FBI May Have Used Malware on Innocent Users
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In Child Porn Bust, FBI May Have Used Malware on Innocent Users

by Francisco MemoriaNovember 8, 2016

In 2013, the FBI confiscated Freedom Hosting, a service that hosted websites on the dark web, including several child pornography websites and private email service TorMail. When it happened, it was seen as a massive victory, but recently unsealed documents show the FBI may have used malware on innocent users.

Three years ago, the FBI was given a warrant that allowed them to hack 300 TorMail users who were allegedly linked to child pornography. They went with a piece of malware known as a Network Investigative Technique (NIT), with the goal of acquiring users’ real IP addresses.

The agency did manage to arrest a lot of people for child pornography, but documents unsealed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) show the NIT was actually used on innocent users.

According to the documents, the FBI was allowed to “investigate any user who logs into any of the TARGET ACCOUNTS by entering a username and password”. Yet, the NIT was used on users even before the TorMail login page appeared. WIRED’s coverage at the time claims users were given a “Down for Maintenance” page that carried the malware, on al websites hosted by Freedom Hosting.

Christopher Soghoian, principal technologist at the ACLU told told Motherboard:

While the warrant authorized hacking with a scalpel, the FBI delivered their malware to TorMail users with a grenade

The malware was quickly discovered by the community, and that forced the Feds to end their operation sooner than expected. Be that as it may, the FBI still arrested a large number of child pornographers.

Christopher Soghoian also noted that it remains unclear whether the court knew the FBI hacked innocent users it shouldn’t have, and whether the agents who did it were punished.

How the Feds Caught the Pedophiles

Although the Feds allegedly hacked innocent users, they still got the job done, as their malware exploited a critical memory management vulnerability in Firefox, which later fixed the problem.

The NIT specifically targeted Tor’s Firefox version, through a hidden Windows executable named “Magneto”. All it did was look up the infected user’s MAC address – a unique hardware identifier – and the Windows hostname. Then it was all sent to a server in Virginia outside of Tor, exposing the user’s real IP address.

Magneto also sent a serial number that tied the victim to her visit to the hacked websites. Those who noticed the hidden iframe tag that loaded the JavaScript code, noticed a lot of work went into simply identifying users, so the Feds became a suspect.

Still, after identifying users’ real IP addresses, their anonymity was broken. Thus, child pornographers were taken down.

Image from Shutterstock.


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