The government’s ability to hack into suspects’ computers may be massively expanded if the US Congress doesn’t block it within the next 7 months. The Supreme Court has recently ruled that federal judges can issue hacking warrants to federal law enforcement in the US if the suspect hides their location, as they usually do. Moreover, the FBI could also be granted the power to infiltrate any computer if the latter has already been taken over by cybercriminals.
These changes come into effect in December 2016 unless Congress blocks them. Senator Ron Wyden, the most senior Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, is going to introduce a bill blocking the court’s move.
Indeed, the rules were written for searching physical spaces at distinct locations and often do not adapt well to the Internet and online services, where millions of computers can be searched at the same time. The problem was raised a few days ago, when two judges struck down search warrants for suspected users of child sex abuse sites. The Federal Bureau of Investigations had taken over the site in question trying to trap users and eventually searched hundreds of PCs when a federal magistrate in Virginia allowed the agency to hack all visitors to the site.
According to the government, this was permissible, at least because visitors to the website were trying to hide their location by using the Tor browser. The FBI found a way to hack the service and trace visitors to the sex abuse website. Civil liberties advocates opposed this move – not because they wanted to defend child sex abuse content, but because local law enforcement shouldn’t be able to search potentially millions of computers under one judge’s order. As a result, judges in two other states have ruled that the Virginia warrant is invalid in their territory, so the evidence that the users visited the sex abuse website became inadmissible in result.
Senator Ron Wyden, without getting into the specifics of the case, claims that he believes the domestic law enforcement agencies shouldn’t be able to conduct such bulk surveillance. Indeed, one should admit that one warrant for one judge can affect millions of computers, which greatly expands the government’s hacking and surveillance powers.