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

    This is a discussion on US govt quietly tweaks rules to let cops, Feds hack computers anywhere, anytime within the General Computing and Internet forums, part of the Community channel category; US govt quietly tweaks rules to let cops, Feds hack computers anywhere, anytime Congress? Democracy? No need for that On ...

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

      US govt quietly tweaks rules to let cops, Feds hack computers anywhere, anytime
      Congress? Democracy? No need for that

      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 jurisdiction over the physical location of the computer. In other words, a district judge can't issue a search warrant against someone or something 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.

      "Congress shouldn't let the Justice Department and an obscure judicial rules committee write substantive law, especially on a novel and complex issue with serious privacy, security, and civil liberties implications. 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."

      The DoJ argues that because of the rise of anonymizing services like Tor it's often impossible to find out where a target computer is located. It's an issue that is dogging the FBI as it attempts to prosecute pedophiles who accessed the Playpen, a website hidden in the Tor network that hosted images and videos of child sex abuse.

      In that case the FBI took over the site's servers and ran it themselves for two weeks. During that time they deployed a "Network Investigative Technique" (NIT) to unmask and identify some of the perverts visiting the site, and begin making arrests.

      That NIT somehow injected code into some Playpen visitors' web browsers that leaked their real public IP address to FBI agents, allowing investigators to track down where the Playpen users lived with the help of ISPs. Exactly how the NIT worked isn't known the FBI refuses to talk about it.

      When the Feds went to get a warrant to install the NIT on people's PCs, the agents obtained a single warrant from a local magistrate judge who simply did not have jurisdiction over all 1,200 or so people, scattered over the US and beyond, who were suspected of accessing the Playpen hidden service. The US courts have now ruled that the investigation amounted to an illegal search, and hundreds of potential Playpen prosecutions are now in doubt.

      Cutting corners

      Changing the rules as a procedural measure, rather than after a debate in Congress, has been slammed for being underhand and for setting a dangerous precedent. "It carries with it the specter of government hacking without any Congressional debate or democratic policymaking process," said Richard Salgado, Google's legal director of law enforcement and information security in testimony on the matter.

      Although the Supremes have now approved the rule changes, they aren't in force yet. Under the law, Congress has until December 1 to respond to the tweaks before they come into effect. Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) has said he will be moving on the matter immediately.

      "I plan to introduce legislation to reverse these amendments shortly, and to request details on the opaque process for the authorization and use of hacking techniques by the government," he told The Register.

      "These are complex issues involving privacy, digital security and our Fourth Amendment rights, which require thoughtful debate and public vetting. Substantive policy changes like these are clearly a job for Congress, the American people and their elected representatives, not an obscure bureaucratic process."

      Quite how much support the senator will get from his fellow congresscritters is uncertain. This is an election year and Congress seldom gets things done at the best of times. But unless something is done before December 1, it's open season for police hacking teams to go rummaging around in hard drives and flash chips around the world.
      Comment: Many years ago most of the letters coming into and leaving this country would have been opened and read. This was especially carried out during the World Wars when censorship was used to help keep strategic troop movements secret, along with many other things which the military and government didn't want the enemy to get their hands on.

      Some countries still check much of the post going through their system and in many cases this is an open secret in those countries. Opening letters in a manner so that the recipient doesn't know is an art form for which training is available. Of course sending packages with prohibited items is not something I would wish to encourage people to do and even our own Post Office uses sniffer dogs and X-Ray machines, to check them, just in case.

      If I were to send a letter to someone else in the UK it is unlikely to be opened, unless the Police or security services are watching one or both of us.

      When the invention of telephones international calls became more and more popular. Due to the lack of lines, you would normally have to book a very specific time slot for a call. Perhaps the security services would be listening in too, but the lines were so bad it would have been hard to tell even if they were.

      Now we can just pick up the phone and call virtually anywhere on this planet we call home. We can even use a computer or tablet to make a video call anywhere using something such as Skype.

      There are supposed to be laws to prevent the wholesale act of phone tapping. The Police are supposed to obtain a warrant first. As for GCHQ, the UK Government appears to be letting them do whatever they like.

      What right though does the US Government have to hack any computer it likes anywhere around the world?

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

      I wouldn't be at all surprised to find out that there are a lot of things that police, security services and gchq do without official government approval!

      No doubt there are ways to get around things by considering something as a bit of a "grey area".

      We're just going to have to get used to it.

      The government is determined to have its way with the introduction of mass surveillance, by using various well known (but flawed) arguments to justify the passing of over-draconian legislation.

      Law enforcement agencies will then be free to do whatever they want using said legislation as their shield.
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