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The FBI Won't Say Whether It Hacked Dark Web ISIS Site
The FBI somehow obtained the IP address of someone who allegedly visited
an ISIS-related site on the dark web. The DOJ is blocking discussion of
the issue from entering the public docket.
by Joseph Cox January 11, 2023, 2:00pm
Hacking. Disinformation. Surveillance. CYBER is Motherboard's podcast and
reporting on the dark underbelly of the internet.
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U.S. government lawyers are hampering efforts that could reveal how the
FBI managed to obtain the real IP address of an alleged visitor to an ISIS
website on the dark web, according to court records reviewed by
The case involves Muhammed Momtaz Al-Azhari, who was charged in May 2020
with attempting to provide material support to ISIS. According to the
complaint against him, Al-Azhari allegedly visited a dark web site that
hosts "unofficial propaganda and photographs related to ISIS" multiple
times on May 14, 2019. In virtue of being a dark web site--that is, one
hosted on the Tor anonymity network--it should have been difficult for the
site owner's or a third party to determine the real IP address of any of
the site's visitors.
Do you know anything else about the FBI's use of NITs? We'd love to hear
from you. Using a non-work phone or computer, you can contact Joseph Cox
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email joseph.cox at vice.com.
Yet, that's exactly what the FBI did. It found Al-Azhari allegedly visited
the site from an IP address associated with Al-Azhari's grandmother's
house in Riverside, California. The FBI also found what specific pages
Al-Azhari visited, including a section on donating Bitcoin; another
focused on military operations conducted by ISIS fighters in Iraq, Syria,
and Nigeria; and another page that provided links to material from ISIS's
media arm. Without the FBI deploying some form of surveillance technique,
or Al-Azhari using another method to visit the site which exposed their IP
address, this should not have been possible.
Now, in a recent series of filings, Department of Justice lawyers won`t
say how the agency accessed Al-Azhari`s IP address, and are blocking
discussion of the issue from entering the public docket.
"In discovery, the Government has declined to provide any information
related to its TOR operation," Samuel E. Landes, the defense attorney
working on the case, wrote in a filing published Tuesday.
The news highlights the Department of Justice`s continued and intense
secrecy about its use of hacking tools, despite them becoming more popular
in a wide range of types of criminal investigations. The knock-on effects
of that secrecy can be that defendants do not have access to details of
how they were identified, and don't have an opportunity to effectively
challenge its legal basis. In some cases, prosecutors have also lost
chances of convictions because keeping the tools secret was deemed more
important than winning a case.
In the motion filed Tuesday, Landes writes that government prosecutors
have successfully demanded his motion to compel for more information be
marked as a "highly sensitive document." That designation is used for
documents that may be of interest to the intelligence service of a hostile
foreign government, and use of which by the foreign government would
likely cause significant harm, Landes filing says. Landes' latest filing
is a subsequent motion asking the court to reconsider giving that
designation to his earlier motion.
The FBI Hacked Over 8,000 Computers In 120 Countries Based on One Warrant
Landes points to how the FBI's use of network investigative techniques
(NITS)--the DOJ's euphemism for hacking tools--is far from a secret,
having been used in multiple cases over the years. He says he also found
an exhibit filed in other cases with similar issues and is widely
available on the internet. Despite the public availability of this
information, the government asked the court to treat the motion to compel
as a highly sensitive document, Landes writes.
The Department of Justice declined to comment.
In other cases, the DOJ has decided to stop pursuing convictions
altogether rather than provide defendants with more information on how
they were identified. In 2015 the FBI took over, and hacked thousands of
visitors to, a dark web child abuse site. While the operation did
ultimately secure many convictions, prosecutors refused to abide by an
order from the court to provide the defense team with the NIT exploit
code. The judge threw out the evidence in response, killing the case. The
NIT was based on a "non-public" vulnerability.
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