The FBI is worried encryption will hurt its ability to fight crime, and the head of a controversial Italian surveillance tech company is willing to help.
The surveillance tech company Hacking Team has gathered widespread attention for selling its spyware products to countries such as Ethiopia, Morocco or the United Arab Emirates, where governments allegedly used it to target activists and journalists. But since 2012, Hacking Team has also been providing spyware to the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), as Motherboard revealed in April.
Now, in an email sent to a company mailing list, Hacking Team's CEO and founder David Vincenzetti hints that he has the technology to help the FBI get around its encryption woes.
Referring to a recent speech on encryption by FBI Director James Comey, Vincenzetti writes that the most "relevant" and "confidential" information online is spread using encryption technologies such as "hidden forums in the Darknet."
But worry not, Vincenzetti seems to say, Hacking Team is here to help.
"The Darknet can be totally neutralized / decrypted."
"The Darknet can be totally neutralized / decrypted," Vincenzetti writes in the email sent to the mailing list on Friday, which was sent to Motherboard by RT reporter Andrew Blake. "The right technology to accomplish this exists, the right (agent-less, infection-less, extra-low latency and extremely effective on a very massive scale) technology to fight terrorists in cyberspace exists and is available now."
"Just rely on us," he concludes, hinting that his company has developed a technology to not only defeat encryption—something that Hacking Team has boasted for a while—but to deanonymize and track users of Tor.
Vincenzetti describes it as "agent-less, infection-less, extra-low latency and extremely effective on a very massive scale," but he doesn't offer many more details, and doesn't say whether he is referring to Hacking Team's marquee product, its "hacking suite" called Remote Control System Galileo.
A Hacking Team spokesperson did not answer Motherboard's request to clarify what product Vincenzetti is referring to.
"Just rely on us."
In any case, the email shows that Hacking Team is aggressively moving into the US market, and positioning itself as a solution for the FBI's "going dark" problem. "Going dark" is the FBI's way of describing a theoretical scenario in which encryption technologies make it impossible to gather evidence or follow leads during investigations.
This email is also one of the few messages posted on Hacking Team's mailing list that can't be described as spam, according to a subscriber that asked to remain anonymous, who also described Vincenzetti's mailing list as "a pain in the ass."
"At 4 AM he starts spamming news that is a week old," the subscriber said, "and he can easily send out four or five emails a day."
That actually made me a little curious, so I sent an email to the mailing list address, which is reserved for company contacts and customers, asking if I could become a subscriber.
A few minutes later, Vincenzetti himself responded, asking for my "governmental email address."
Guess I'm not getting any spam emails after all.
UPDATE, 06/03/2015, 9:53 a.m.: A few hours aAfter the publication of this article, Hacking Team's founder Vincenzetti sent a new message to his mailing list.
"WE ARE DELIGHTED to have among the close readers of this list, Vice Motherboard which never reports on Hacking Team without smug editorial comment," he wrote, describing this article as "hilarious reading."
"Today was no exception!" he added.
Vincenzetti, who has yet to respond to my request for an interview, also said that his comments on the message we reported on still "stand."
"IF you are a lawful user of the Internet, you have little to fear from Hacking Team," he wrote. "BUT IF you break the law or engage in terrorism (or are thinking about it), you should know that the safe haven that the DARKNET provides is beginning to be exposed to the light."