By Robert Schoon ( | First Posted: Aug 02, 2013 06:15 PM EDT

If you were freaked out by recent reports that the NSA had a program to track users on the internet, you will probably not like to know this: According to a recent Wall Street Journal report, the FBI has hacking tools that can spy on suspects using their smartphone and laptop microphones, among many other tools.

The story broke late on August 1, when the Wall Street Journal published a report detailing how the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other federal law enforcement agencies use sophisticated techniques, often used by top hackers, to spy on suspects of investigations. Among the most incredible claims include the report that the FBI can use Android software to remotely activate microphones in smartphones, in order to record conversations. The same thing can be done with microphones in laptops without the suspect being any the wiser.

According to the Wall Street Journal's anonymous source, a former U.S. official, the FBI uses these techniques in cases involving organized crime, child pornography, or counterterrorism. However, in an ironic twist, "the bureau is loath to use these tools when investigating hackers," because there's too high a risk that the suspect could discover the FBI's techniques and publish them across the internet.

Another technique the FBI uses is delivering spyware through email or infected web links to computers and smartphones, which can infect and track the suspect's system, which the Journal notes is a technique more commonly used by criminals to attack unsuspecting victims. Other techniques have been around for a little while longer than spyware. Since 2005 at least, the FBI has been using tools that can track a computers' internet address, running programs, and other metrics; these tools are called "web bugs."

A former official of the FBI's cyber division said that these tools are only used when other methods don't, or won't, work. The division hires hackers to write this software for them, which they have been developing for more than a decade. Previous instances of FBI hacking include in 2004 when "roving bugs," according to the Verge were used to surveil alleged mob members. Roving bugs involve the process of tapping cell phone mics, which work whether the phone is on or off, to eavesdrop on suspects.

Of course, wiretapping and some other surveillance techniques require a warrant from a judge. The NSA's PRISM program, on the other hand, is a much murkier subject, involving secret FISA courts and other data tracking that may or may not have had any judicial oversight at all. The latest from that running story was published by the Guardian on Wednesday. In it, Glenn Greenwald, with purported top-secret documents from his source, ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden, alleged that the National Security Agency has a top-secret program that allowed analysts to search through databases full of information from "millions of individuals."

Called XKeyscore, Greenwald called it the "widest-reaching" system for developing intelligence from the internet. The databases contained emails, online, chats and browsing histories, which are different data than the previously known "metadata" which the NSA was originally exposed as collecting. "I, sitting at my desk," said Snowden to Greenwald, could "wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant, to a federal judge or even the president, if I had a personal email."

Edward Snowden in his first interview, breaking the NSA story. (Credit: Freedom of the Press Foundation)

While the FBI using hackers to break into systems is intrusive (but kind of cool), the NSA seems to get more powerful and all-knowing each time Greenwald writes an article. Which agency do you think has the more invasive, scary, or technologically interesting wiretapping and/or surveillance techniques? Let us know in the comments.

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