Published: Fri, December 02, 2016
Research | By Jennifer Evans

Government agencies can now conduct mass searches of Americans' computers, cell phones

Government agencies can now conduct mass searches of Americans' computers, cell phones

If Congress doesn't act to stop it, that change to Rule 41 becomes effective basically at midnight tonight.

Federal agents already hack into victims' computers to thwart criminals, but the government could greatly expand that power under the new rule.

However, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) on 28 November, argued that the changes to Rule 41 were merely an update to the previous laws.

The DOJ argues that these changes received "long consideration and substantial public debate".

The change affects the federal rules of criminal procedures, which are proposed by the US Department of Justice and approved by the US Supreme Court.

In all, the Federal Bureau of Investigation obtained over 8,000 IP address and hacked computers in 120 different countries. That makes them challenging to catch.

Mr. Wyden touted three bills in the Senate Wednesday that would have either delayed or prevented those changes from taking effect, but each one was opposed by Majority Whip John Cornyn, Texas Republican, who claimed that critics of the changes were fueled by "misplaced" concerns. Republican leaders refused to support the bill and so as of tomorrow, the rules come into effect.

A procedural change or a boost to surveillance powers?

This solves the problem of getting legal search warrants for systems that are hidden behind the Tor anonymity network, which has hampered prosecutions identifying the appropriate jurisdiction for applying for a search warrant.

"It would be really absurd if individuals in the U.S. were able to use technological means to immunize themselves from federal warrants", Hennessey said. Wyden's characterization that the rules had been changed with an obscure process. "Realistically", he said, "a court is going to say, 'This is more authorized than before'".

Nevertheless, judges are still the ones ruling on these warrants. Until now, the rules, in most cases, prohibited federal judges from issuing a search warrant outside their jurisdictions. Now, the rules will clearly state they can consider these unique requests from investigators.

Three senators' efforts to stop a major expansion of US law enforcement agencies' hacking powers has failed for now. But they are using them, as a letter from Assistant Attorney General Peter Kadzik attests to.

Despite this, Congress has never considered whether the government should be hacking into devices, let alone prescribing a set of procedures and protections, as it did with the Wiretap Act. She refers specifically to the government's investigation "Playpen" involving placement of tracking software on computers of child pornography suspects. And there have been real-world cases in which the new rules would have helped law enforcement.

Microsoft's Then-CEO Bill Gates (C) presents a T-shirt as a retirement gift to "Clippy" in 2001.

"I$3 nstead of engaging in a deliberative process that involves the American people, the Department of Justice made a decision to circumvent Congress and seek this rule change behind closed doors", Sen.

The change would also allow a judge to issue a single warrant to remotely access thousands - potentially millions - of devices.

Nowadays we have botnets of IoT smart devices, botnets of infected home WiFi routers, botnets of infected PCs, botnets of infected mobile devices, and so on.

This extension of law enforcement hacking powers has occurred with no Congressional debate or vote, simply by an administrative change.

Risks associated with hacking can include inadvertently damaging the device or destroying data stored on it. Misattribution, which can cause the government to accidentally hack into the device of an innocent third-party instead of the targeted criminal suspect, is also of concern.

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