For the first time, it has been revealed that the UK's National Crime Agency (NCA) has the technological capability to hack. Recently published documents shine a greater light on the agency's abilities when it comes to fighting crime in the 21st century.
There is already voluminous evidence that the UK's signal intelligence agency, Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), breaks into the computer systems of targets. But it's now clear the NCA, which is the UK's counterpart to the US FBI, also has "equipment Interference" (EI) capabilities, which may include hacking into phones, tablets, or computers.
On Wednesday, the UK government published the draft Investigatory Powers Bill, a proposed piece of legislation that would force internet service providers to store the internet browsing history of all citizens for up to one year. The bill would also provide a new legal framework for the UK's surveillance capabilities, such as those conducted by GCHQ.
A section of that draft bill, which was tweeted by Eric King, the deputy director of campaign group Privacy International, contains a veiled reference to UK law enforcement having the capability to conduct "equipment interference."
"Equipment interference is currently used by law enforcement agencies and the security and intelligence agencies," the section reads. It goes on to point out that "more sensitive and intrusive techniques" are available to a "small number of law enforcement agencies, including the National Crime Agency."
An NCA spokesperson told Motherboard in a statement that "There is a range of capabilities and techniques available to the NCA.
"To preserve operational effectiveness we do not disclose details of our deployment of specific techniques."
Another document, published to a UK government website less than a week ago, describes exactly what EI entails.
"The only thing you can do to equipment is, well, hack it"
The document, entitled "Factsheet—Targeted Equipment Interference," says EI is "the power to obtain a variety of data from equipment. This includes traditional computers of computer-like devices such as tablets, smart phones, cables, wires and static storage devices."
The document goes onto say that EI, also called "computer network exploitation," can vary in complexity. A simple example might be using the login credentials of a target to access data on a computer. More sophisticated cases might include "remotely installing a piece of software on to a device." The document states that "the software could be delivered in a number of ways and then be used to obtain the necessary intelligence."
The document claims that "Equipment interference capabilities have made a vital contribution to the UK from Islamist terrorism and have also enabled the disruption of paedophile-related crime."
According to experts, there is little doubt that these practices could more simply be described as hacking.
"However you put it, and regardless of 'interference,' it clearly speaks of equipment, so it most certainly isn't referring to any sort of passive wiretapping. And the only thing you can do to equipment is, well, hack it," Claudio Guarnieri, a security researcher and activist who has produced reports on Italian surveillance company Hacking Team, told Motherboard in an online chat.
"This appears to confirm for the very first time that British law enforcement are in the hacking business," added King from Privacy International.
It also raises serious questions about how these techniques are being used by the NCA.
"What statutory authority are the police claiming grants them these powers? How often have they been used? Has hacked material been used in criminal prosecutions? Have courts been notified evidence presented before them might have been tampered with by hacking?" King added.