A protest against government surveillance in Washington DC. Civil liberties groups denounced the FBIs move as brazen and potentially dangerous. Photograph: Xinhua /Landov/Barcroft Media
The FBI is attempting to persuade an obscure regulatory body in Washington to change its rules of engagement in order to seize significant new powers to hack into and carry out surveillance of computers throughout the US and around the world.
Civil liberties groups warn that the proposed rule change amounts to a power grab by the agency that would ride roughshod over strict limits to searches and seizures laid out under the fourth amendment of the US constitution, as well as violate first amendment privacy rights. They have protested that the FBI is seeking to transform its cyber capabilities with minimal public debate and with no congressional oversight.
The regulatory body to which the Department of Justice has applied to make the rule change, the advisory committee on criminal rules, will meet for the first time on November 5 to discuss the issue. The panel will be addressed by a slew of technology experts and privacy advocates concerned about the possible ramifications were the proposals allowed to go into effect next year.
This is a giant step forward for the FBIs operational capabilities, without any consideration of the policy implications. To be seeking these powers at a time of heightened international concern about US surveillance is an especially brazen and potentially dangerous move, said Ahmed Ghappour, an expert in computer law at University of California, Hastings college of the law, who will be addressing next weeks hearing.
The proposed operating changes related to rule 41 of the federal rules of criminal procedure, the terms under which the FBI is allowed to conduct searches under court-approved warrants. Under existing wording, warrants have to be highly focused on specific locations where suspected criminal activity is occurring and approved by judges located in that same district.
But under the proposed amendment, a judge can issue a warrant that would allow the FBI to hack into any computer, no matter where it is located. The change is designed specifically to help federal investigators carry out surveillance on computers that have been anonymized that is, their location has been hidden using tools such as Tor.
The amendment inserts a clause that would allow a judge to issue warrants to gain remote access to computers located within or outside that district (emphasis added) in cases in which the district where the media or information is located has been concealed through technological means. The expanded powers to stray across district boundaries would apply to any criminal investigation, not just to terrorist cases as at present.
Were the amendment to be granted by the regulatory committee, the FBI would have the green light to unleash its capabilities known as network investigative techniques on computers across America and beyond. The techniques involve clandestinely installing malicious software, or malware, onto a computer that in turn allows federal agents effectively to control the machine, downloading all its digital contents, switching its camera or microphone on or off, and even taking over other computers in its network.
This is an extremely invasive technique, said Chris Soghoian, principal technologist of the American Civil Liberties Union, who will also be addressing the hearing. We are talking here about giving the FBI the green light to hack into any computer in the country or around the world.
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FBI demands new powers to hack into computers and carry out surveillance