Tech groups oppose expanding FBI hacking authority

A group of companies that includes Google and PayPal told Congress it is hard to imagine that a proposed federal rule change does not violate the Fourth Amendment.

Leslie Caldwell, assistant Attorney General. Photo credit: Sean Lyngaas, FCW.

Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell has defended proposed rule changes for federal warrants to search computers, but privacy advocates and technology companies are urging Congress to block the changes.

A coalition of technology firms and organizations that includes Google and PayPal has sent a letter to House and Senate leaders expressing opposition to proposed rule changes that it says would dramatically expand law enforcement's hacking authorities.

The new rules, which the Supreme Court approved in April, would allow federal judges to issue search warrants for computers outside their jurisdictions. Congress has until Dec. 1 to reverse the decision before it takes effect, and lawmakers are considering legislation to do so.

The rule changes "would invite law enforcement to seek warrants authorizing them to hack thousands of computers at once -- which it is hard to imagine would not be in direct violation of the Fourth Amendment," the June 21 letter states. Other signatories include the American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Tor Project.

The Justice Department has long sought the amendments to Rule 41 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, arguing that the "remote searches" the amendments authorize are often the only way to find criminals who mask their online footprints.

In a June 20 blog post, Leslie Caldwell, assistant attorney general for Justice's Criminal Division, said the changes would not allow the government to use any remote search technique that is not already authorized by law.

She said the rule would apply in two narrow circumstances: When suspects have used anonymizing technology to hide their locations, and when the crime involves suspects hacking computers located in five or more judicial districts.

Anonymizing tools include the Tor network, which is also used by law enforcement agents, journalists and human rights activists.

But Justice's defense of the rule changes has done little, if anything, to allay privacy groups' criticism of the amendments. The Electronic Frontier Foundation and others have conveyed the urgency of opposing the rule changes via a neon-green website, NoGlobalWarrants.org, with a subhead that reads: "Don't let the U.S. government hack our computers."

"The rule changes do not impose any additional protections to address the heightened impact that government hacking will have on internet users' security and privacy," the opposition letter states.

Last month, Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) introduced legislation to block the changes to Rule 41. Reps. Ted Poe (R-Texas) and John Conyers (D-Mich.) have introduced a companion bill in the House.

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