The current prosecution of Ross Ulbricht has brought to light the U.S. government’s stance when it comes to hacking into servers outside the country without a warrant. According to a new legal filing for the Ulbricht case, the Justice Department said that such a warrantless search is permissible.
This revelation came about as questions have been asked regarding the method the government used to locate the Silk Road servers in Iceland. Ulbricht, who the government suspects of being the operator of the illicit drug website, challenged the government’s explanation that a leaky CAPTCHA on the site’s login was responsible for leading them to the IP address and accused them of unlawfully hacking into the site to determine its location.
"In any event, even if the FBI had somehow 'hacked' into the SR Server in order to identify its IP address, such an investigative measure would not have run afoul of the Fourth Amendment," wrote Assistant US Attorney Serrin Turner in the government’s response to Ulbricht’s allegation. "Because the SR Server was located outside the United States, the Fourth Amendment would not have required a warrant to search the server, whether for its IP address or otherwise."
Bitcoin was Silk Road's preferred choice of payment
Turner continued, “Given that the SR Server was hosting a blatantly criminal website, it would have been reasonable for the FBI to 'hack' into it in order to search it, as any such 'hack' would simply have constituted a search of foreign property known to contain criminal evidence, for which a warrant was not necessary."
The government’s method of locating the server location has also been questioned by experts who suggested that the FBI contacted the site’s IP directly, rather than a leak in the site’s login. Further allegations were leveled at the FBI that illegal wiretapping was used to discover the servers.
"However, no wiretap of any kind was used in the FBI’s investigation—let alone any wiretap intercepting Ulbricht’s communications," Turner added, addressing the wiretapping allegation. "Indeed, Ulbricht did not even become a suspect in the FBI’s investigation until well after the SR Server was searched. Hence, no information collected from or about Ulbricht, through a wiretap or otherwise, was ever used to locate the SR Server."
In September of last year, the FBI raided and shutdown Silk road and arrested Ulbricht in the process. Since then, U.S. authorities auctioned off 30,000 Bitcoins, a cryptocurrency favored by the site and used to purchase illegal drugs and other dubious items.
Ulbricht’s trial is scheduled for next month. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges of engaging in narcotics, hacking, and money-laundering.