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US govt quietly tweaks rules to let cops, Feds hack computers anywhere, anytime

Published: April 30, 2016
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Source: The Register

On Thursday the US Supreme Court approved a change to Rule 41 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. It sounds innocuous, but the effects will be felt around the world.

Under today's rules, US cops and FBI agents need to know where a computer is before they can get a warrant to directly hack the machine – because they have to ensure the judge and court they approach for the warrant has geographical jurisdiction over the physical location of the computer. In other words, a district judge can't issue a search warrant against someone outside her district.

Under the proposed rule change [PDF] this geographical information won't be needed and a single search warrant can be used to authorize American crimefighters to infiltrate any PC, Mac or other device anywhere in the world.

In addition, the rule change will also allow the FBI and others to hack into victims' computers that have already been broken into by cyber-criminals. This is being billed as a measure to help track down the operators of botnets.

The US Department of Justice has been proposing the rule change for three years, saying it's just a procedural matter that doesn't mean the police get any extra powers. Not surprisingly, civil libertarians, technology companies, and some politicians disagree.

"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.

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