The Federal Bureau of Investigation has proposed a rule change that would grant the agency broad new powers to hack into and carry out surveillance of computers in the United States and around the world.
At issue is Rule 41 of the federal rules of criminal procedure, which sets the terms under which the FBI is authorized to carry out searches and surveillance via court-approved warrants. Under existing language, warrants must specifically target precise locations where suspected criminal activity is occurring. Warrants must also be approved by judges in the same district where the suspected crime is occurring.
The proposed amendment would allow judges to issue warrants allowing the FBI to hack into any computer, regardless of location. The FBI claims the rule change would help federal investigators conduct surveillance of “anonymized” computers, whose locations have been concealed using tools such as the Internet anonymity networkTor.
A clause in the proposed amendment would allow judges to issue warrants to gain “remote access” to computers “located within or outside” districts where specific criminal activity is suspected in cases in which the “district where the media or information is located has been concealed through technological means.”
The expanded powers would apply in the case of any criminal investigation, not just terrorism cases as the rule currently states.
If the proposed rule change is approved, the FBI would have the power to unleash “network investigative techniques” against computers anywhere in the world, allowing the agency to secretly install malware and spyware on any computer, effectively allowing it to control that computer and all its stored information. The FBI could download all the computer’s digital contents, switch its camera or microphone on or off and even control other computers in its network.
Civil liberties and Internet privacy advocates have blasted the proposed rule change.
“This is a giant step forward for the FBI’s operational capabilities, without any consideration of the policy implications,” warned Ahmed Ghappour, a computer law expert at the University of California Hastings College of Law, who will speak at the November 5 hearing. “To be seeking these powers at a time of heightened international concern about US surveillance is an especially brazen and potentially dangerous move,” Ghappour told theGuardian.
Ghappour is particularly alarmed by the potential global repercussions if the FBI is granted expanded hacking and surveillance powers. He notes that Fourth Amendment restrictions on search and seizure do not apply to US surveillance of foreign targets and that the proposed rule change amounts to “possibly the broadest expansion of extraterritorial surveillance power since the FBI’s inception.”
“For the first time the courts will be asked to issue warrants allowing searches outside the country,” he told the Guardian.
“This is an extremely invasive technique,” Chris Soghoian, principal technologist of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), who will also be addressing the hearing, told the Guardian. “We are talking here about giving the FBI the green light to hack into any computer in the country or around the world.”
As a cautionary example, Soghoian points to documents obtained from the watchdog group Electronic Frontier Foundation which revealed that the FBI disseminated a fake2007 Associated Press story in a bid to install malware on the computer of a terrorism suspect.