What we know (now) about the FBI's CIPAV spyware

G-men pull spyware, not pistols, to make arrest in bomb threat case

Tucked into an affidavit filed by an FBI agent last month was the first hard evidence that federal agents are equipped with more than automatic pistols and handcuffs: The agency was asking a federal judge to let it infect a PC with spyware so they could finger its owner.

The case, which was reported locally in Olympia, Washington, last month and received more national exposure this month, involved bomb threats e-mailed to Timberline High School in Lacey, an IP trail that went cold in Italy and a call to the FBI.

Special Agent Norm Sanders, who swore out the affidavit, could be Efrem Zimbalist Jr.'s doppelganger for all we know, but he must have been more talkative than the close-lipped character from the late-1960s TV drama The FBI to win over a judge. Sanders had to spill some beans about CIPAV, the agency's name for what the rest of us would call spyware -- software the FBI wanted to plant on the PC used to e-mail the bomb threats in the hope of identifying its owner, and thus the sender.

Until Computerworld's Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request is granted and more information on CIPAV is reviewed -- and maybe not even then -- all we have to go on is this:

What is CIPAV? CIPAV, which stands for "Computer and Internet Protocol Address Verifier," is secret surveillance software that the FBI used last month to help identify whoever was e-mailing bomb threats almost daily to a Washington high school. Although at least one security professional agreed that CIPAV fits the description of spyware, much of what it is, or does, is unknown. What is known: The software collects a wide range of information from the target PC and sends it back to control -- in this case, the FBI -- and automatically records every outbound communication, though not the contents of said communication. If that sounds like a bot, well. ...

What does CIPAV do? As the affidavit spelled out, "the exact nature of [CIPAV] commands, processes, capabilities and their configuration is classified as a law enforcement-sensitive investigative technique," so not all the facts are in.

But according to the court filing, this is what the CIPAV collects from the infected computer:

-- IP address

-- Media Access Control address for the network card

-- List of open TCP and UDP ports

-- List of running programs

-- Operating system's type, version and serial number (in Windows, the serial number is the 25-digit alphanumeric product activation key)

-- Default browser and its version

-- Default language of the operating system

-- Currently logged-in user (username) and registered company name (The latter is optional in Windows.)

-- Last visited URL

Once that initial inventory is conducted, the CIPAV slips into the background and silently monitors all outbound communication, logging every IP address to which the computer connects, and time and date stamping each. The affidavit called this a "pen register." The content of each communication -- the data packets that made up an e-mail message, for instance -- were expressly not to be collected.

What happens to the data the CIPAV collects? According to the warrant application, the CIPAV transmits the information to a computer "controlled by the FBI" in the jurisdiction of the U.S. District Court's Eastern District of Virginia. Presumably, the server is at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va., which is within the Eastern District.

Does the CIPAV capture keystrokes? We don't know, and the FBI isn't talking.

Can the CIPAV spread on its own to other computers, either purposefully or by accident? Does it erase itself after its job is done? We don't know. The only clue in the affidavit is that the CIPAV would operate as a pen register for up to 60 days after the software had been "activated" by the recipient. In other words, the FBI swore that the monitor would "time out" after 60 days. But not that it would delete itself or not be able to spread in some worm or bot fashion.

Speculation ahead: The affidavit was mum on whether the CIPAV collected the kind of information necessary to propagate, such as e-mail addresses in the PC's address book, instant messaging contacts or even, since it was launched at an as-then-unidentified MySpace user, MySpace's messaging list).

Does the FBI have just one stock CIPAV model? The affidavit does seem to hint that the spyware comes in more flavors than just vanilla. It said, "Because the FBI cannot predict whether any particular formation of a CIPAV [emphasis ours] to be used will cause a person(s) controlling the activating computer to activate a CIPAV, I request that this Court authorize the FBI to continue using additional CIPAV's in conjunction with the target MySpace account (for up to 10 days after this warrant is authorized), until a CIPAV has been activated by the activating computer."

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Gregg Keizer

Gregg Keizer

Computerworld
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