The FBI is asking a regulatory body to expand its legal authority so it can take over almost any computer in the United States or the world, even secretly turning webcams on, all with far fewer constraints.
The request is being made to the Advisory Committee on Criminal Rules.
“We are talking here about giving the FBI the green light to hack into any computer in the country or around the world,” Chris Soghoian, the chief technologist for the American Civil Liberties Union, told The Guardian.
Soghoian and others believe the bureau is trying to do an end-run around the Fourth Amendment by increasing the scope of federal warrants.
Under the current rules the FBI must get a separate warrant for each computer its agents hack into, and the warrant must be signed by a judge in the district of the computer. The proposed rule would allow an agent to hack into any computer anywhere. It would also apply to criminal cases, and not simply terrorism.
That means an agent could, for instance, hack into your computer or even turn on your webcam if somebody under investigation sent you an email.
A Threat to TOR?
Guardian reporter Ed Pilkington believes the FBI’s action is designed to get around anonymous browsers like TOR, or the Onion Router. Such browsers allow people to access the Internet without leaving a trail.
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The new rules would specifically allow agents to use “network investigative techniques” to search any computer in which the “district where the media or information is located has been concealed through technological means.” That would include any computer that data has been routed through — even computers being used by hackers against their owners’ will.
If the request is granted, the FBI would be able to expand the employment of clandestine installation of malware to take over computers, The Guardian reported. Such malware could download all the data in a computer and turn microphones and video cameras into surveillance devices to collect information – all without the owner knowing.
“The government seeks to conduct its searches using techniques that pose a serious risk to cybersecurity, and that may fail the reasonableness and particularity requirements of the Fourth Amendment,” the ACLU said in a letter to the Advisory Committee on Criminal Rules.
Further, the ACLU said, the FBI’s desired powers will only grow in their impact as technology expands and as “internet-connected devices” are increasingly used.
“According to one estimate, ‘up to 200 billion devices—from games consoles to thermostats—will be hooked up to the Internet by 2020,’” the ACLU said. “Granting the government the power to hack remotely into these devices, thus gaining a view inside people’s most private spaces, is constitutionally suspect.”
An End Run around Congress and the Constitution
Some observers say the FBI is trying to avoid public debate by asking an obscure regulatory body to approve the change.
“It absolutely should not be done through a rule change – it has to be fully debated publicly, and Congress must be involved,” said Jennifer Granick, the director of civil liberties for Stanford University’s Center for the Internet and Society.
Computer law expert Ahemd Ghappour described the new techniques to The Guardian as “possibly the broadest expansion of extraterritorial surveillance power since the FBI’s inception.” Among other things it would allow the FBI to violate the rights of people in other countries as well as the rights of Americans, he said.
“For the first time the courts will be asked to issue warrants allowing searches outside the country,” Ghappour noted, arguing it would poison America’s relationship with other countries.
FBI Attacks Data Encryption
In addition to expanded hacking capabilities, the FBI would like to get rid of data encryption as is currently being employed. Apple, for instance, says its latest mobile operating system uses a form of encryption that won’t allow it or even police to hack into someone’s phone.
FBI director James Comey says he wants to start a dialogue with Congress to give his agency the authority to force technology companies to provide unrestricted access to customer data, The Guardian reported. Comey made the suggestion in a speech in which he attacked the idea of data encryption in mid-October. The FBI still can access Apple customer “cloud” data with a warrant, but Comey said that’s not enough.
“Uploading to the cloud doesn’t include all the stored data on the bad guy’s phone,” Comey said.
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