Use of Policeware on the Rise


The challenge for law enforcement and intelligence agencies investigating Internet crimes are those users who hide themselves using various “anonymization” techniques. Internet anonymization techniques allow targets of criminal and terrorist investigations to hide themselves from other Internet users. In normal circumstances, this can be a privacy concept employed to prevent others from identifying a user in legitimate situations. The issue for law enforcement investigators and the intelligence community becomes when criminals and terrorists use this same technology to prevent their victims or government from identifying who they are and hiding their location.

The misuse of Internet anonymization poses unique investigative challenges. However, criminals and terrorist can be identified given certain circumstances and the appropriate application of social engineering skills and investigative tools and techniques. The challenge is; 1) knowing that there are methods to employ; and, 2) obtaining training regarding employing those methods.

In recent years, a new category of computer coding for government agencies has developed and are referred to as “policeware” or “govware”.  The recent exposure of one of the companies involved in this industry “HackingTeam”, from Italy, has shed light on these tools’ use by law enforcement and the intelligence community. HackingTeam’s company servers were broken into by as yet unknown hackers and their company and client information exposed to the world.  Retaliatory strikes by the hacking community, purportedly as supporters of freedom and protecting the innocent, is nothing new. Just a few years ago Gamma Group from Germany, another large company in the Policeware industry, also was hacked and had internal material and code exposed.

What both of these incidents revealed to the world the extent to which the law enforcement community (mainly at an involved county’s  National level) and the intelligence community’s efforts are to identify investigative targets. It also shows that there are a series of tools available that can further investigations into anonymous users.  Generally, most investigators are unaware that there are several categories of tools to assist in the investigation of anonymous users. These can include: Server side scripting, Target side scripting, and Total device compromise (complete takeover of a machine). Other traditional methods of evidence collection against targets can include general Network surveillance (sniffing your network for clues), Physical access compromise and Lawful interception techniques like a traditional wiretap but of a computer).  These varied investigative techniques require additional training and education for the law enforcement community. This training and education not only includes the technical aspects of the tool deployment but also the legal implications of employing these techniques against a criminal target. Unfortunately, this information is currently not generally available. Law enforcement should look to a broader acceptance of these more offensive techniques to continue their efforts in protecting their communities. Certainly, the U.S. federal law enforcement agencies are using these techniques. In his recent comments to the House Intelligence Committee hearing on cybersecurity, FBI Director James Comey said about criminals using the Darknet that if they “use the onion router to hide their communications.. They think that if they go to the dark web… that they can hide from us.” But, he says: “They’re kidding themselves, because of the effort that’s been put in by all of us in the government over the last five years or so, that they are out of our view.” The methods and techniques to reveal criminals online is diverse.  Law enforcement investigators are beginning to employ a variety of methods that will further their investigations and catch criminals who thought they were untouchable.


Wow, the FBI can’t investigate Cybercrime: What do We do now?

The tech headlines since September have included how the FBI is so incompetent that it can’t investigate Cyber crime. Many articles have even insisted that they have lied about how they investigated certain cyber crimes. Some online are saying the Silk Road 1 arrest of Ross Ulbricht, whose trial starts this week, could not have happened without a grand conspiracy with the CIA. The investigation of the attack on Sony did not happen the way the FBI said because, well, apparently they are too slow to know how it was done The tech headlines since September have concluded the FBI is incompetent and can’t investigate cyber crime properly. The  “FBI Lied About How it Obtained Silk Road Server Location Says Security Expert” and “The FBI May Have Made An Embarrassing Mistake While Investigating The Sony Hack” or “Some Experts Still Aren’t Convinced That North Korea Hacked Sony

I guess the FBI’s work  and arrest of Blake Benthall during the Silk Road 2 investigation was not real nor was the malware arrest under operation Blackshades. What I think is happening to the FBI is a broader reactionary response to law enforcement by some.  The current tech industry attitude being espoused concerning the FBI is a similar distrustful reaction that some are having towards U.S. law enforcement in general after the recent police shootings.

In the Tech industry it appears that every so called “Cyber Security” firm that wants its fifteen minutes of fame has come out saying the FBI is wrong. At this point, the problem is no one outside of these investigations has any idea what the evidence is or is not in these cases.  Sony brought in Mandiant to assist in their investigation.  Even Kevin Mandia, CEO of Mandiant, in a letter to Sony’s Michael Lynton states that the attack was unprecedented.


Now this certainly does not say that the attack was done as the FBI claim by the North Koreans, but it certainly does support the fact that there is much we have yet to understand about the case.

I understand the FBI’s position and that external criticism is part of law enforcement. What I do not understand is the huge amount of discord without knowing the facts.  Okay, maybe the FBI is wrong, but the only people that know the facts are the FBI, the victims and the perpetrators. External analysis is always good in a free society, but let us be careful when we call the ones we enlist to help us liars without the benefit of all the facts.

Revenge Porn: 1st Amendment Issue or Crime?

Stalking and harassing people online has been a pastime of some since the Internet went public. The purpose of online harassment has always been to try and humiliate others by posting rude and offensive information about others that offend and embarrass. A new form of harassment has been coined as “Revenge Porn“, the stated intention of which is get back at former lover for some personal grievance by posting nude pictures taken consensually during the relationship. Revenge sites such as or or its sister domain cater towards this activity. Some sites also have the dual purpose of being a dating site. From an investigative point of view we need to consider careful how we approach this issue due to First Amendment concerns and the general investigative issues related to online investigations.

Criminal behavior is not protected by the First Amendment. As with any crime, an investigator must have an idea of what statutes might be involved. Let’s consider the possible factors that might be present in this kind of behavior besides just a relationship gone bad. First, if one or more of the subjects in the pornographic images are a minor, the investigator is dealing with a sex crime. There are serious penalties for the person who took the image as well the one who posted it or possess it. Additionally, hosting child pornography has serious legal repercussions for any website.

Second, if the image is of an adult, was it taken without their consent, also known as video voyeurism? There are numerous laws that might be involved under such circumstances. The National District Attorneys Association has a nice breakdown by states of the possible statutes.

Third, was the pornographic image stolen from the owner? According to their indictments, Hunter Moore and Charles Evens, the evil geniuses behind, were not just posting images that were submitted but were actively hacking into individual’s email accounts/cell phones to get images. What they were doing definitely violated numerous hacking statutes. It makes one wonder if there were really that many folks submitting their revenge image or were they just hacking into peoples’ accounts and just stealing them.

Fourth, was there an attempt made to blackmail or extort something of value out of victim to prevent the images from being posted? Obviously, there are laws against this kind of activity in every jurisdiction.

Fifth, does the posting fit under general harassment or more specifically under Internet harassment or cyberstalking? Is the posting part of a broader context of harassment against a person? Finally, does your jurisdiction have a statue that specifically covers this conduct? California has done just that with its new Revenge Porn law. The new law makes it a misdemeanor for individuals to take and then circulate without consent such images online with the intent to harass or annoy.   Kevin Christopher Bollaert, the man behind, found out the hard way that the California Attorney General was serious about this method of harassment when he was charged with 31 felony counts of conspiracy, identity theft and extortion.

Absent an affirmative answer to one of the above questions, the investigator may be faced with a scenario of a consensually taken picture of an adult, posted on a website without authorization. Absent the pornographic nature of the image, how many images are posted on websites without specific authorization? You get the idea. Absent a criminal statute, this could simply be considered a civil issue. Key to getting the investigation under way is to answer the following questions:

  1. How old are the individuals in the picture?;
  2. Under what circumstances were the images created (with or without consent)?; 
  3.  How securely were the images kept after being created and who purportedly has them, ie, were they stolen?; 
  4. Were the images posted with or without consent?; and 
  5. Was there a blackmail or extortion attempt made prior to the images being posted or to get them removed?

Answers to these questions will help hone the investigative process and may initially help identify possible suspects if a crime did in fact occur. It may be quite possible that no suspect is identified, such as the case of where the images were taken covertly or were stolen. It then becomes a process of identifying where the images were created and where they were posted. Also as we explained in detail in our book how some images posted online may contain metadata called Exif in the image. This could lead to some possibly useful and identifying information as to the photograph’s source. The investigator may may also have to contact the hosting website and serve legal process to obtain their cooperation.

The process gets much more difficult if the poster anonymously hides their IP address, or the website did not keep any information. If the actual file images can be obtained will they have any meta data that may provide clues to where they were created and how? Clearly, these investigations can be time consuming. Law enforcement has a role to investigate criminal acts but it also has to be prudent in how they allocate limited resources. A true revenge porn incident might be more appropriately handled by civil enforcement action taken by the wronged party.

The problem for the wronged party becomes that search engines crawl websites and frequently capture the posted images from these sites. They are maintained in their cache independent of the revenge site. Also, may be down and no longer running as a revenge porn site but there is still a problem. was archived by the WayBack Machine. As of the writing of this post some of the material from has been removed but not all of it. The result for the victim is that the images that were offensive are now likely archived someplace else on the Internet. You also have to consider how Google and Yahoo and sites like TinEye handle these images in their databases. They have tons of images, which they have in “cache” or maintained somewhere on a server.

Additionally, what happens when the website is hosted in another country? How can you make them remove the image if the website is hosted in Russia? Civil suits can be filed against the hosting company, but extraditing individuals from another country for hosting these illegal images is almost impractical knowing that doing so for child pornography is difficult at best. Trying to get some sanctions for them for posting nude images of former boyfriends/girlfriends would be a major challenge.

The best solution is strengthen the liability and if necessary the criminal statute for someone who maintains the image on their website. There is also always the one thing we recommend that can definitely stop this issue, prevention. Simply don’t let folks take pictures of you with your clothes off! Individuals have to understand that in this day and age the picture you take today can be uploaded and posted for all the world to see in seconds and may never disappear.

PS: This piece was written by both Todd Shipley and Art Bowker

Additional Stories on Revenge Porn

Race To Stop ‘Revenge Porn’ Raises Free Speech Worries

Mom: I found my face on a ‘revenge porn’ website

Judge throws out New York “Revenge Porn” case

Intentan controlar bajo ley el ‘porno de la venganza´

Buscan poner freno al porno de la venganza

Author Interviews

Todd and I have been busy doing interviews about Internet crime and our book. We decided to start providing links to them so our readers can keep up to date with what we are saying, as well as what others are saying about our book. For those writing about Internet crime or our book, shoot Todd or I a message and we will be glad to help you out.

Todd G. Shipley Interviews:

Gary Audin on No Jitter

Collecting Internet Evidence, Part 1, January 24, 2014

Collecting Internet Evidence, Part 2, January 30, 2014

Art Bowker Interviews:


Investigating Internet Crimes: An Interview with Cybercrime Expert Art Bowker, February 7, 2014

Both Shipley and Bowker

American Heroes Radio, hosted by Lieutenant Raymond E. Foster (Retired) 

Introduction to Solving Crime in Cyberspace, December 28, 2013

Questionable Online Investigations: Missteps Outside the Classroom

Last week we discussed the problems that can occur when an uninformed college educator exposes criminal justice students to online undercover investigations without fully understanding the legal nuances of those operations. This generated a lot of feedback on links to the blog article. We did not mean to imply that these missteps only occur in the academic setting. Unfortunately, they happen whenever staff are not properly trained and are then directed to complete online investigations.

We are aware of law enforcement personal doing the same thing that criminal justice students were directed to do, ie, pulling images from the Internet for use in an online undercover profile. In some cases, law enforcement felt it was appropriate as long as they bought the “model’s” picture. This is an ill-advised practice because it exposes the real person to danger as well as the officer and their agency to civil liability if something goes wrong. Additionally, it can give away the profile as being a “fake,” defeating the purpose for its creation. Again, the real person might be identified. It may be true the model sold their picture but that does not mean they wanted it used for conducting undercover online investigations.

Missteps are not only being committed by law enforcement. We cite in our book several cases where attorneys either directly or through advice participated in legally questionable online undercover activities. In one case a prosecuting attorney impersonated a defendant’s friend online to obtain proof that a witness was lying during a criminal trial. In another an attorney gave the go ahead for an investigator to take over a minor friend’s social networking profile, to obtain access to the minor’s restricted pages in order to get evidence for a civil suit. None of these examples ended well for the attorneys involved.

We devoted Chapters 9, 10, and 11 to covering various aspects to initiating, conducting, maintaining, and managing undercover online investigations. But don’t take our word for how good our book is conducting Internet investigations. Take a look at the following comments from respected law enforcement professionals:

Larry D. Johnson, Current CEO at Castleworth Global LLC, Former Chief Security Officer at Genworth Financial and Special Agent in Charge, Criminal Investigative Division, USSS, Retired, noted:

“This book offers the most comprehensive, and understandable account of cybercrime currently available to all different skill levels of investigators. It is suitable for novices and instructors, across the full spectrum of digital investigations and will appeal to both advanced and new criminal investigators. It will no doubt become a must have text for any law enforcement or corporate investigator’s investigative library.”

Lieutenant Raymond E. Foster (Ret.) Los Angeles Police Department, author, and host of American Heroes Radio, observed:

“Another strength to this book is that is very easy to read and in my opinion it needs read not only by the guys who are going to be doing these investigations but I think supervisors and managers out there need to take a look. … It is written for many levels within an organization.” (The entire show is here American Heroes Radio)

Neal Ysart, Director First August Ltd, Information and Corporate Risk Services writes:

“At last….. Informed, pragmatic guidance from two highly experienced professionals who have actually spent time on the front line, not just the classroom. This book is relevant for practitioners working in both law enforcement and within business – every aspiring cyber investigator should have a copy.”

Jim Deal, United States Secret Service (Ret.) and original Supervisor of the San Francisco USSS Electronic Crimes Task Force notes:

“Cyber-crime, internet fraud, online predators…we think they’re being addressed until we become the victims. Today’s law enforcement is ill-prepared to address against national security, let alone against our law-abiding citizens. Todd Shipley and Art Bowker are able to communicate what law enforcement responders need to know before they get the call – the information in this book must become a mandatory reference for law enforcement agencies everywhere.”

Criminal Justice Student gets A, Perverts Get Off, and Instructor Fails

Todd and I wrote our book for individuals conducting Internet investigations, be they criminal or civil in nature. We made a very conscious effort to include real life cautionary tales of what not to do when conducting online investigations.  One area we stressed concerned online undercover operations and that they were not the same as “role playing” for fun or fantasy. We just heard of a recent real life story involving a major college criminal justice studies (CJS) program. It really shocked us and demonstrates the need for our text in today’s law enforcement training and criminal justice degree programs.

The university mentioned has a respectable CJS undergraduate, which has areas of focus on law enforcement, cyber-defense, information security, terrorism and forensics.  Its graduates go on to obtain careers in law enforcement, intelligence and security officers.  The description could apply to any one of a number of colleges and universities if instructors are following the same kind of in class lab project.  This university’s program has a class focusing on technology and law enforcement, again not unlike numerous other classes in vogue in degree programs around the county.  Many such classes go by names such as cybercrime, Internet, or computer investigations. This particular CJS program class has a hands-on component, which allows undergraduate students to purportedly experience what it is like to actually conduct an undercover online investigation. Yep, we said “undercover online investigation”.   One of the students described the class as follows:

The course is taught by a 10 year plus instructor, experienced in computer security and CJS. The class size is about 30 students and uses a computer lab on the campus. The course is for sophomores and above and has been taught for two or three years.   It is a very popular course on campus, because of this “hands-on” component.  One required exercise in the course is for each student to create a fake e-mail account and Facebook profile of a 13-year old minor and to proceed online and to enter various chat rooms pretending to be a juvenile. The students are advised to pull a picture off the Internet of a minor to complete their profile for this exercise. The exercise occurs over three or four class sessions.  Software is used to record chats and take screen shots of the sessions. Students are then required to submit a “worksheet” of their experiences. The only cautionary directive the instructor gives is if they are sent child pornography they are to report it immediately, in which case the hard drive is “preserved.”

Well, we clearly have some areas of concern about this exercise.  First, none of these undergraduate students are sworn law enforcement officers.  Neither Todd nor myself have ever heard of undergraduate students being required to conduct actual  undercover investigations as part of a course requirement.  Clearly, if something bad happens, the students are woefully unprepared for what follows.  Additionally, because they are not sworn law enforcement officers, they could be criminally and civilly liable for problems that may occur. Then there are also chain of custody issues when something illegal is discovered. They are not trained in how to collect and preserve evidence, which of course our text covers in great detail and goes beyond merely recording chats and taking a few screen shots.  Even Dateline’s to “Catch a Predator”, which had law enforcement involvement and still ran into numerous legal problems. We spent a lot of time in our book discussing policy and the appropriate process for setting up a system and preparing law enforcement officers for online undercover work. There is much more to it than just Googling a name or a website.

One of the most disturbing things about this exercise was the use by the 30 CJS students of REAL minors’ pictures in their profiles, pulled from who knows where on the Internet.  What would the parents of these minors feel like if they knew that their child’s picture from a sporting event or school website was used in this manner? How would you feel if your child’s picture was used to demonstrate how undercover online investigations into sexual exploitation transpire?  Now, how would you feel if we told you there was a way for those perverts to identify and locate your child from those images that were pulled from the Internet? Yeah, we know.  Not good.

It is unclear what happen to these profiles after the exercise ended. It did not appear that these fictitious profiles were deleted. Additionally, the profiles were used for several different class sessions. This means that even if the profiles were deleted, they may still exist as they were probably crawled by a search engine while they were still active. It is tough to get that genie back into the bottle once it is online. So the effect of this exercise may go well extend beyond the timeframe of a single class semester. These profiles were no doubt created to facilitate interaction of a questionable nature with a pervert. The problem is the profiles likely still exist somewhere (anyone look at the Internet Archive lately), including a picture, used without the permission of the parents of minor, waiting for some sex offender to find them.

Again, we noted in our book, investigators have to be extremely careful with using images because there are sites, such as Google Image and Tineye, that can be used to show if that image has appeared elsewhere on the Internet. So taking the image from a profile and running it through one or both of these programs may show where on the Internet it also appeared.  If the image was pulled from say a school website, a person could possibly identify the name of the real minor, the school, and their general location, and not the identity of the CJS student who created the fictitious profile.  No one would want images of loved ones posted on a profile designed to entice pervert until  the Internet runs dry of electrons.

Additionally, the 30 CJS were instructed to collectively violate Facebook’s terms of service agreement for this class exercise.  There have been civil suits filed by several Internet Service Providers for individuals collectively creating fictitious profiles. LinkedIn and Yelp are two such companies that come to mind. Granted in these examples they were used for deceptive practices or to commit fraud, but is exposing an unsuspecting minor to real dangers any better?  It deserves repeating that we discuss these issues in great detail in our book and note that investigators and their agencies must have well thought out policies and procedures dealing with these legal concerns, before undertaking undercover online investigations.

In our example, one CJS student hit the “jackpot” so to speak. One Internet target thought the CJS student was really a 13 year old female and sent the CJS student links to child pornography.  The student, apparently at the professor’s instruction, sent the pervert a “link” so they could capture his IP address (Anonymizing techniques must be taught in another class). This student also received an online invite to meet up in the real world for sex from another individual responding to the CJS students fake profile.  What is incredulous is that the student got an “A” for the assignment.  We don’t even want to know how they identified that the “links” went to actual child pornography. 

Apparently, the rest of the class engaged in chat conversations with numerous individuals who thought they were minors. Frequently, these individuals masturbated on webcams to the students as well. So these perverts “got off” and the CJS students got disgusted. Law enforcement was notified about the child porn links being sent. But this is not going to be an easy case, particularly with the chain of custody concerns presented, not to mention testimony and evidence collection and documentation.

This should never have occurred. These concerns are not mitigated in a college classroom setting, students and teachers do not have an exemption from general legal principles, particularly when they are apparently ignored. Todd and I would both give this instructor an “F” for failing to provide the students with a useful learning environment.  We are confident that anyone reading our book would realize that without the proper structure and policy that this is a big no no. We wrote our current book intending to help prevent these kinds of situations so things like this don’t happen. This is particularly true for in programs that are training future law enforcement officers and investigators.  A copy of our book is on the way to this instructor. Hopefully we can correct his teaching approach to ensure that his students actually are prepared for their future in law enforcement. On that note I left a cigar lit somewhere.


Cutler, J. (2013, August 20). Yelp Sues Firm That Sued It for Coercion, Alleging Posting of Fake Favorable Reviews. Bloomberg Law. Retrieved from

Gold, M. (2008, June 24). NBC resolves lawsuit over ‘To Catch a Predator’ suicide. Retrieved from

Gullo, K. (2014, January 7). LinkedIn Sues Unknown Hackers Over Fake Profiles. Bloomberg Technology. Retrieved from 







Collecting Electronically Stored Information (ESI): Traditional Computer Forensics vs. Online Captures

Modern investigators and litigators are no stranger to computer investigations. Electronically stored information (ESI) is becoming more and more a part of both criminal and civil cases. Often the first question asked is, “What incriminating piece of information was found by the computer forensics examiner?” But ESI is more that just data found on a computer. It can and does involve a growing number of cases in which data was collected off the Internet. What is the difference between the two? To consider that question we first need to define ESI. A good definition is:

Any information created, stored, or utilized with digital technology. Examples include, but are not limited to, word-processing files, e-mail and text messages (including attachments); voicemail; information accessed via the Internet, including social networking sites; information stored on cell phones; information stored on computers, computer systems, thumb drives, flash drives, CDs, tapes, and other digital media.” (Department of Justice (DOJ) and Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AO) Joint Working Group on Electronic Technology in the Criminal Justice System (JETWG), 2012, pg. 12)

Notice this definition includes “information accessed via the Internet, including social networking sites.” Lets refer to this type as online ESI and data collected from computers, cell phone or other storage devices as digital ESI. We started this discussion assuming that online ESI was different from digital ESI. But are they really? They both can contain metadata and can be quite voluminous. The difference between the two involves the dissimilar manner in which they are collected as well as how each are susceptible to modification in a different manner.

The computer forensics benchmark for years has been to avoid acquiring data from a live machine and to never examine original data. In recent years this gold standard has been relaxed but not eliminated. We are starting to see some acquisitions and even examinations of computers that are “on”. Additionally, the computer forensics examiner, even in remote data acquisitions, has control over the target system. Online ESI acquisitions are quite different. They are always “live.” The investigator has no control over the original media that hosts the online data. The original data is on a server, which might not even be in the same jurisdiction, let alone the same state, province, or country, as the investigator.

Both digital evidence and online evidence are susceptible to modification. However, digital ESI found on a hard drive or electronic media can be seized and maintained. Even in a civil setting, once pertinent digital ESI is identified, it is secured until it can be provided to opposing parties, with potential penalties for spoliation. Seizing digital ESI is either done by an on scene computer forensic examiner or by “pulling the plug” and providing the device to an expert for later acquisition and examination. As long as chain of custody and proper procedures are in place there is little chance the data will be altered and/or done so without detection.

Contrast this to online ESI collection, which is merely a snapshot on a particular date and time, of a website, social networking site, etc. The online ESI may also only exist temporarily, such as in the case of instant messaging or chat session, and could be gone unless it is captured in some manner. The best computer forensic examiner might not retrieve the entire chat or instant message communication. A website or social networking site might change minutes after it was first captured. Online ESI can be changed remotely, such as with a mobile device, because the media containing the data has not been secured. Even if there were enough computer forensics examiners available, investigators can’t wait for them because online ESI is subject to change at any moment. If it not captured when it is discovered it might not be there again.

Both Todd and I believe investigators can be trained in the proper methods and procedures to not only collect online ESI but do so in a manner that it can be used as evidence in any legal proceeding. Online ESI can be preserved after its capture and “hashed” to answer any questions about it possibly being later altered. We discuss these methods and procedures and tools to accomplish this important investigative task in our book. On that thought, I am going to lite up a cigar and contemplate my next blog entry.


U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AO) (Joint Working Group on Electronic Technology in the Criminal Justice System (JETWG)). Recommendations for Electronically Stored Information (ESI) Discovery Production in Federal Criminal Cases. (2012). Washington, D.C. Retrieved from