Feds Get Expanded Hacking Powers


New rules that expand the US government's hacking powers take effect today.

Multiple efforts in Congress to block the changes—which some worry will threaten basic privacy rights—were intercepted by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), Reuters reported.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), with bipartisan support from fellow lawmakers, made a trio of attempts to prevent the implementation of a federal court procedure known as Rule 41.

Approved in May, the guideline makes it easier for the Justice Department to obtain warrants for remote electronic searches. It also allows judges to issue a single warrant authorizing government hacking of numerous devices around the world.

"This is a dramatic expansion of the government's hacking and surveillance authority," Wyden said earlier this year. "Such a substantive change with an enormous impact on Americans' constitutional rights should be debated by Congress, not maneuvered through an obscure bureaucratic process."

Rule 41, recommended by the Justice Department, comes from a government advisory committee and updates the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. It was adopted by the US Supreme Court and submitted to Congress, which sat on the initiative until Dec. 1, at which point it goes into effect.

With great power, however, comes great fear: Many people are concerned about a loss of privacy, especially at the hands of the incoming administration. President-elect Donald Trump, "openly said he wants the power to hack his political opponents the same way Russia does," Wyden said during a speech in the Senate.

In an effort to ease citizens' minds, US Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell this week penned a blog post touting the benefits of Rule 41, arguing that the amendments "do not create unintended consequences."

"The possibility of such harm must be balanced against the very real and ongoing harms perpetrated by criminals—such as hackers who continue to harm the security and invade the privacy of Americans through an ongoing botnet, or pedophiles who openly and brazenly discuss their plans to sexually assault children," she wrote.

"No one familiar with the harm caused by anonymized child sexual abuse, anonymized firearms trafficking or overseas malware can seriously contend that it makes more sense for Americans to fear federal investigators seeking search warrants from independent federal courts," Caldwell added.

Not everyone agrees: The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) earlier this year asserted that the risks associated with Rule 41 are two-fold.

"The first part of this change would grant authority to practically any judge to issue a search warrant to remotely access, seize, or copy data relevant to a crime when a computer was using privacy-protective tools to safeguard one's location," the organization said.

That includes those using the Tor VPN service, or even folks who declined to share their location with a smartphone app.

The second part allows the feds access to a PC compromised by a botnet.

"This means victims of malware could find themselves doubly infiltrated: their computers infected with malware and used to contribute to a botnet, and then government agents given free rein to remotely access their computers as part of the investigation," EFF continued.

The Justice Department, meanwhile, argued that the move updates federal rules for the digital age. Previously, magistrate judges can only grant requests that cover their jurisdictions, which can hamper efforts to go after bad actors online, who are not limited to one area.

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