Is the Government to Blame in Recent Malware Attacks?

A new piece of malware (malicious software) that preys on a Firefox security vulnerability is reported to have showed up Sunday morning on websites hosted by the anonymity network Freedom HostingBut, while such crimes are typically sent for FBI investigation, the IP addresses involved in the malware stunt are tracing back to a remote location in Reston, Virginia, implying that the federal agency itself may be the prime suspect in the case. 

The malware usage identified over the weekend is likely related to a federal investigation of Eric Eoin Marques, a 28-year-old being held in Ireland facing extradition to the U.S. based on child pornography charges. Marques is the owner and operator of the Freedom Hosting service inside the Tor Network. Tor is a free software system and network that offers to help protect users' Internet privacy and defend them against surveillance, claiming on its website to help "protect dissidents, activists, and protect the anonymity of users trying to find help for suicide prevention, domestic violence, and abuse-recovery.”

The malware in question showed up on Sunday morning on multiple websites hosted by Marques' Freedom Hosting platform on the Tor Network. Security vulnerabilities in Firefox were then, reports predict, exploited by the malware to help unmask Marques' identity as well as the identities of those who used his services. 

Online engineer Vlad Tsrklevich told Wired that the malware usage was very likely tied to the government, saying that the Virginia-based IP address combined with the circumstantial evidence of Marques' arrest shows that, “It’s pretty clear that it’s FBI or it’s some other law enforcement agency that’s U.S.-based.”

The FBI has reportedly been engaging more and more in online activities using spyware technologies to target criminals as part of an ever-expanding strategy to monitor illicit Internet activities. The Wall Street Journal reported last week that the FBI was even deploying complex spyware capable of remotely activating the microphones of Android devices. The report found that the FBI was both developing hacking tools internally as well as purchasing others from private sources. The FBI has also, according to recent reports, been noticeably engaged in amped up efforts to identify and stop major networks engaging in online child pornography in recent months.

If the federal government is behind recent malware attacks on anonymity networks in efforts to thwart child pornographers, their efforts will raise an interesting dilemma in the ever-evolving national debate on online privacy.

On the one hand, federal use of malware programs may indeed be one of the most powerful tools available to catch criminals who have been able, for example, to exploit children online without recourse. But the fear remains that online surveillance programs will not stop there.

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Rachel George

Rachel is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the London School of Economics. She holds a BA in Politics from Princeton and an MA in Middle Eastern Studies from Harvard. Her interests include journalism, U.S. foreign policy, human rights, and international law.

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