Microsoft slowly seals its lips about its police toolkit
To put a lid on bloggers' speculation about police getting "backdoors" to Windows security, Microsoft is starting to hush up on the subject. In an e-mail to BetaNews on Friday, a spokesperson described COFEE as a "customizable framework."
Despite releasing a few more facts on Friday about a controversial new tool for police officers, Microsoft has now vowed to stay mum on the "exact methods" used by COFEE (Computer Online Forensic Evidence Extractor), as well as about what kinds of passwords -- OS or network, for example -- COFEE might be able to crack.
"Because COFEE is designed to be used by law enforcement officials in investigations that deal with highly sensitive evidence and information, the exact methods by which the COFEE tool works cannot be disclosed," a Microsoft spokesperson wrote, in an e-mail to BetaNews on Friday.
On the other hand, Microsoft's expanded statement to BetaNews on Friday did add some new information to the public pool of knowledge about a tool already distributed to 2,000 police around the globe.
For instance, the spokesperson described COFEE on Friday as a customizable framework, "operating from a USB storage device, that law enforcement can use to leverage publicly available forensic tools and access information on a live Windows system."
Microsoft went on to say, "Microsoft's COFEE works by being plugged into a running system where a user has already logged on. It enables law enforcement to expedite the evidence gathering process by automating over one hundred different commands that would otherwise have to be typed by hand. COFEE saves the results for later analysis, preserving information that could be lost if the computer had to be shut down and transported to a lab."
In earlier accounts, COFEE had been variously explained as either a set of software tools or a series of about 150 commands.
As previously reported, COFEE controversy started last week when some bloggers started rumors that Microsoft was handing out "backdoor keys" to Windows security. The blogs got sparked by an article published in the Seattle Times based on an interview with Brad Smith, Microsoft senior VP and general counsel. Last week, Smith gave a talk at a law enforcement conference in Seattle, where he characterized COFEE as a "Swiss army knife for law enforcement officers."
In the Times article, reporter Benjamin J. Romano wrote that COFEE can "decrypt passwords and analyze a computer's Internet activity as data stored in the computer" -- words that soon touched off tirades among several incensed bloggers.
In an update to his article, Romano said a Microsoft spokesperson had later written to him describing COFEE as "a compilation of publicly available forensics tools, such as password security auditing technologies."
Although an initial statement to BetaNews contained no mention of the password tools, a second e-mail from Microsoft provided the information that COFEE does "include password security auditing tools." Subsequently, last Thursday, BetaNews asked Microsoft to identify the kinds of passwords that might be audited or recovered by police using COFEE -- Windows OS passwords, network passwords, or application passwords, for example.
We also asked Microsoft whether the password security auditing tools mentioned by Microsoft are being premiered with COFEE, or whether they are tools which are already readily available elsewhere. Although Microsoft declined to provide more answers to this inquiry specifically, the company's response did shed a little bit more light on what COFEE is, who uses it, and how it was created.
What follows is the full text of Microsoft's final answer on COFEE, as provided to BetaNews on Friday.