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FBI said to be taking a hacker approach to spying

Using tools to remotely record conversations on Android devices and laptops, the FBI is allegedly taking a cyber tack on surveillance.

While the National Security Agency has gotten most of the recent flak for spying on people via the Internet and cell phone records, the Federal Bureau of Investigation appears to be doing some cyber spying of its own.

According to a report by the Wall Street Journal, the FBI has been allegedly developing surveillance tools that work much like what hackers use to collect information on suspects -- including Trojans, spyware, and malware. Supposedly, the FBI created some of these tools internally, while others were purchased.

The FBI "hires people who have hacking skill, and they purchase tools that are capable of doing these things," a former official in the agency's cyber division told the Journal. The official also said that these tools are only used when other surveillance methods won't work.

The most alarming technology mentioned by the Wall Street Journal is a tool that allegedly lets the FBI remotely activate the microphones in Android devices. Once activated, the bureau can record conversations without the device's owner knowing. Apparently this tool can do the same thing with laptop microphones.

According to the Journal, the FBI has been allegedly working on these hacking tools for more than 10 years. In fact, CNET reported on almost exactly the same tool in 2006. At that time, it was revealed that the FBI had begun using a form of electronic surveillance called a "roving bug," which also could remotely activate a mobile phone's microphone and use it to eavesdrop on nearby conversations.

The FBI actually has a long history of monitoring data and conversations on computers and mobile devices. In 2002, the bureau collaborated with police to wiretap mobile conversations, and in 2004 it renewed efforts to keep that program going. By 2007, the FBI was trying to secretly obtain U.S. citizen's telephone, Internet, and financial records.

Just last week it was revealed that the FBI and NSA were looking to escalate their electronic surveillance even more. On behalf of these agencies, the U.S. government attempted to obtain the master encryption keys that Internet companies use to shield millions of users' private Web communications from eavesdropping.

CNET contacted the FBI for comment. We'll update the story when we get more information.