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One rule to hack them all

Friday, April 29, 2016

The power for the FBI to hack has the potential to go international.

A change in Rule 41 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure by the Supreme Court in the US has broadened the potential scope of FBI hacking powers to an international level. Previously, the FBI had been limited in seeking an authorisation to hack into a suspect’s computer by jurisdiction. So, if the FBI wanted to hack a suspect in New York, they would need to get authorisation from a New York judge.

Now that limitation has been removed. The FBI – as of 1 December 2016 - will be able to go to a judge in any district where activities related to a crime may have occurred and receive authority to hack within or outside that district if the location has been concealed through technological means. In other words, that same New York judge will now be able to authorise hacking a computer potentially anywhere in the world if the FBI is not able to identify the location of the computer.

Hacking as a practice can have huge ramifications in weakening the security of networks - the same networks we rely on for banking, sharing family pictures, filing tax returns, registering to vote even. By expanding the FBI’s power to hack, those threats to such sensitive information will increase too.

Limitations for hacking are already few and far between and the need for the FBI to limit their operations to particular machines in known locations was one of the last good limitations in a bigger fight that has pulled in the good, the bad and the McAfee.

The rule change is set to come into force this December. Some senators have already promised to propose legislation to limit the effect of the change. It is the latest move in the push and pull about appropriate limits to the powers of law enforcement and more importantly where the protections of the right to privacy should begin.