Just in time for the Trump administration, the FBI has gotten what critics characterize as broad new hacking powers. As of Thursday, government agents can now use warrants obtained from a single judge to hack computers in multiple jurisdictions, rather than having to get warrants from judges in each distinct jurisdiction, as required under the old rule. The rule went into effect despite the last-ditch efforts by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and others to either kill or delay it in order to give Congress time to study its implications.
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The changes were approved by the US Supreme Court in a private vote at the end of April, after several years of discussion within the federal judiciary. They were never debated by Congress. The US Department of Justice says the news rules are necessary, particularly in cases where criminals use anonymizing software to conceal their location while committing crimes such as peddling child pornography. Another concern is the weaponizing of hundreds of thousands of internet-connected devices into “botnets” that are then used to flood websites with traffic to shut them down, or for criminal activities that, in the words of Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell, “siphon wealth and invade privacy on a massive scale.”
Wyden isn’t convinced that the changes are urgent., he tried on Wednesday to get the Senate to approve legislation that would have either blocked or delayed the implementation of the new powers.
Those efforts failed.
” By sitting here and doing nothing, the Senate has given consent to this expansion of government hacking and surveillance,” Wyden said in a statement. Or when a mass hack goes awry and breaks their device or an entire hospital system and puts lives at risk.”
In a November 28 blog post, she wrote the federal judiciary deliberated on the changes for three years, using the same process used to modify other rules of criminal procedure. The current rule change deals specifically with venue issues– removing traditional jurisdictional constraints– and not what investigators can actually do as part of the search, she wrote.
” It would be strange if the law forbade searching the scene of a crime,” she wrote.
Caldwell also wrote that the rule modification doesn’t change what is and isn’t permissible under the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. “The Constitution already forbids mass, indiscriminate rummaging through victims’ computers, and it will continue to do so,” she wrote. “By contrast, blocking the [rule change] would make it more difficult for law enforcement to combat mass hacking by actual criminals.”