Emails reveal Polk wanted controversial hacking spyware

The Polk County Sheriff’s Office detective was so interested in what he’d seen at a law enforcement convention, he wasted no time getting in touch with the company when he got back to his Winter Haven office.

PCSO was “extremely impressed” by the technology, detective Ken Noad wrote in an email to the Hacking Team, based in Italy. He asked for more information and a demonstration.

Sales reps were at PCSO's Winter Haven office a few weeks later. What deputies saw was no ordinary law enforcement tool.

The company advertises the ‘Remote Control System’ as a tool for government agencies to infiltrate cell phones and computers to "keep monitoring your targets wherever they are, even outside your monitoring domain," according to a company brochure. Hacking Teams says the technology can bypass encryption and collect audio and video files -- unbeknownst to the person holding the infected smartphone.

A spokeswoman for the Sheriff's Office said they opted to not buy it because it was too expensive.

The company and its software have been a concern of human rights organizations like Citizen Lab, based at the University of Toronto, whose research has revealed evidence the software has been used to target human rights activists and journalists around the world.

Last summer, the company was the target of unknown hackers who posted company emails on WikiLeaks. The massive data dump confirmed suspicions the company had sold its technology to countries with poor human rights records like the Sudan, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia. Emails revealed the FBI and DEA have used the software.

Within the 500GB data-dump were emails showing the company has been busy trying to break into the local law enforcement market with agencies like the Polk County Sheriff’s Office. 

In a Hacking Team email posted on WikiLeaks, a sales representative said PCSO was "currently doing some digital intercepts" and "looking to increase their capabilities." Other emails between PCSO and Hacking Team were also provided separately by the Sheriff’s Office in response to a public records request.

A spokesman for the Hacking Team would not answer questions about specific emails or clients, but sent a statement saying, "Hacking Team agrees privacy is certainly important to us all, but the company is also committed to providing law enforcement the tools needed to keep us safe."

It's not clear for what purpose police and deputies would use the technology and what kind of protections, if any, would prevent its abuse.

"You could have the situation where you've got the rogue cop using it to spy on an ex-girlfriend; you can have a politically-motivated use of this tool,” said Hanni Fakhoury, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "It's important to have real, rigorous oversight and transparency and accountability so we can see and make sure that these tools are being used properly.”

That would take legislative and judicial action. Florida statutes currently allow law enforcement agencies to claim anything related to surveillance is exempt from public oversight. In PCSO's case, a spokeswoman used that statute to explain why Sheriff Grady Judd was “not interested” in answering questions about surveillance technology.

"These sorts of tools can suck up lots of information about folks that aren't suspected of criminal activity,” Fakhoury said. "We have to be vigilant in ensuring our constitutional protections survive in the digital age."