Tech by VICE

The FBI Won’t Confirm or Deny Buying Hacking Team Spyware, Even Though It Did

Feds reject FOIA requests even though a lot of information about them it’s already public thanks to the data breach.

by Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai
Dec 9 2015, 4:35pm

Image: Mark Van Scyoc/Shutterstock

The FBI really doesn't want to talk about its business with the Italian surveillance tech company Hacking Team.

On November 30, the FBI rejected a Freedom of Information (FOIA) request for every contract and any internal record between the Bureau and Hacking Team's US-based reseller Cicom USA. Motherboard had filed the request in April, long before any trace of the FBI's relationship with Hacking Team ever surfaced. At the time, a source told me that Hacking Team had sold to the FBI, and not just the Drug Enforcement Agency, as Motherboard revealed in an investigation published in April.

In its rejection, the Bureau said it can "neither confirm nor deny" the existence of any records.

Yet, thanks to the massive hack suffered by Hacking Team in July, we know very well that the FBI was among the company's clients.

The leak contains the receipts issued by Hacking Team, through its US-based reseller Cicom USA, to the FBI for the sale of the spyware suite RCS. Files titled "Receipt Cicom USA x FBI" detail exactly how much the FBI spent on the company's spyware since 2011 (more than $775,000). And despite the fact that Hacking Team's CEO David Vincenzetti insisted that employees used the codename "PHOEBE" to refer to the FBI, many weren't too careful.

"It's hard to answer your question if I don't know who Phoebe is," wrote an Hacking Team executive to an account manager in 2012.

The manager responded: "FBI."

And documents are littered with explicit references to the FBI, and a client list reveals who the code actually belongs to.

Hacking Team employees also regularly talked about the FBI in their internal emails.

"Phoebe is doing fine with her new toy," Alex Velasco, Hacking Team's sales representative in the US, who also headed Cicom USA, wrote in an email.

Hacking Team even issued certificates of trainings to an FBI agent. The certificates were issued to a "Mick" Houck after the agent completed a training to learn how to use RCS in 2012, and are part of the leak. According to leaked emails, an FBI agent called James Houck was in touch with Hacking Team. The agent signed his emails "Mick."

Houck actively used Hacking Team's spyware at least in one occasion in 2014, according to the emails.

"We have a case where we want to use the [Internet Explorer] delivery feature," Houck wrote to Hacking Team's support in 2013. "Could you tell me the process for deploying with this method. I think I provide the silent installer and someone on your end wraps it according to our request, but I'm really not sure."

Mick Houck did not respond to calls to his cell phone number and his desk number, which are both listed in leaked emails he exchanged with Hacking Team.

We will appeal the FOIA rejection, as there's little doubt that the FBI does have records related to Hacking Team. The Bureau, moreover, doesn't really appear to have many reasons to hide it anymore, given that it let its contract with Hacking Team expire earlier this year, just a few days before the hack.