U.S. Supreme Court Passes Draconian Rule Allowing FBI Hacking Rights On Millions Of Devices With A Single Warrant

As we’ve seen in the San Bernardino iPhone case, the FBI is willing to go to extreme lengths to retrieve [potentially valuable] personal information for investigative purposes. When Apple wouldn’t comply with FBI requests to unlock the iPhone 5c in that case, the U.S. Justice Department filed a lawsuit. A day before the case was to go to trial, the lawsuit was unexpectedly pulled, as the FBI had found a way to break into the iPhone through the help of a third-party.

In the future, the FBI might not have to go through so many hoops to crack large numbers of smartphones and PCs, as the U.S. Supreme Court signed off on new procedural rules that grant judges the ability to grant search warrants on computing devices not only in their own jurisdiction, but just about any jurisdiction across the country.

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The rules have already been sent over to Congress, which is expected to adopt them wholly. The Justice Department has been angling for this modification to search warrant rules for the past three years and describes it as only a minor change despite the fact that in actuality it greatly expands the FBI’s hacking powers. A search warrant could even be issued if a computer’s true location “has been concealed through technical means” with services like Tor.

Unsurprisingly, privacy advocates are extremely unsettled by the turn of events. “Instead of directly asking Congress for authorization to break into computers, the Justice Department is now trying to quietly circumvent the legislative process by pushing for a change in court rules, pretending that its government hacking proposal is a mere procedural formality rather than the massive change to the law that it really is,” said Kevin Bankston, Director of New America’s Open Technology Institute.

“If government hacking is to be allowed at all, it should only be done with authorization from Congress, with strong protective rules in place, and after deep investigation and robust debate. We've never had any public debate about this important issue even though the feds have quietly been doing remote hacks on computers since the turn of the century.”

“Under the proposed rules, the government would now be able to obtain a single warrant to access and search thousands or millions of computers at once; and the vast majority of the affected computers would belong to the victims, not the perpetrators, of a cybercrime,” added U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, (D-Oregon). “These are complex issues involving privacy, digital security and our Fourth Amendment rights, which require thoughtful debate and public vetting.”

The Justice Department disagrees that this move is an affront to civil liberties and privacy, and adds that these latest changes don’t actually authorize anything that wasn’t already permissible by law. But we must ask, if that’s the case, why the need for the rule change?