During their watershed Playpen investigation, the FBI was caught hacking thousands of computers across the world, raising questions about the agency’s hacking power.
The FBI’s Playpen investigation is arguably one of their most infamous cases of the last decade. During the course of this investigation, the FBI gathered information and subsequently shut down the largest child pornography websites on the dark web, called Playpen. While this operation necessitated no small amount of hacking, recent evidence has come to light which confirmed that during this time, the FBI hacked thousands of computers worldwide, including devices in hostile states such as China, Iran, and Russia.
The latest information has raised several questions and concerns behind the FBI’s motivation for the hacking. In addition, there is a growing concern of the FBI giving other nations just cause for targeting US devices of government and agency officials as well as civilians.
The FBI hijacked Playpen’s servers after receiving a tip that the website was being administrated within the US. However, instead of conducting an immediate shutdown, the FBI kept the site active for an additional two weeks. Within these two weeks, the FBI utilized their internal malware Network Investigative Technique (NIT) in order to compromise Playpen’s users’ devices and gather information on them, including their IP addresses.
During the FBI’s NIT campaign, they successfully hacked into 8 000 computers located in 120 different regions, which resulted in hundreds of arrests.
However, some experts have pointed out that this hacking campaign could make the US a target for a malicious hacking campaign.
According to Privacy International’s legal officer, Scarlet Kim, the fact that the FBI hacked into thousands of devices worldwide, could perhaps have aggravated the affected nations, particularly the hostile ones. There is a danger of the US becoming a target for a damaging hacking campaign.
Privacy International is a privacy advocacy group based in the UK and has filed court briefs against the FBI. The ongoing case is known as the US vs Tippens. Tippens’ defender argued against the way in which the FBI conducted their investigation, particularly pertaining to their hacking campaign which compromised the privacy of thousands of users worldwide.
The largest concern, according to security experts, is that the latest hacking campaign could cause the US to be the target of severely damaging cyber warfare . According to an associate professor at Boston University School of Law, Ahmed Ghappour, since there are no clearly defined norms in when, how, or why governmental agencies are justified in conducting such large hacking campaigns, the fear is that this campaign might have sent out the wrong signals to the affected countries.
Ghappour added that the FBI hacking a single individual is less damaging as it doesn’t add to the deteriorating relations between the US and other hostile countries. However, in a context where there is a lack of policies which justify large-scale hacking campaigns, the FBI has set a questionable precedent for international hacking purposes, which could possibly be exploited in the future.