FBI Seeks New Powers To Hack And Spy

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

The FBI proposes “rules of engagement” change to allow it to hack into any computer in the world

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is seeking more powers to hack into a suspect computer no matter where it is located, and carry out surveillance.

But the move has prompted the ire of civil liberty and privacy campaigners.

Power Grab?

The FBI has reportedly approached an “obscure regulatory body in Washington to change its rules of engagement,” according to a report in the Guardian newspaper. At the moment, the FBI is governed by strict limits to searches and seizures laid out under the fourth amendment of the US constitution, and it also has to contend with first amendment privacy rights.

But it has now approached the a regulatory body within the Department of Justice, known as the advisory committee on criminal rules. This committee will meet for the first time on 5 November to discuss the proposed amendment from the FBI.

FBITechnology experts and privacy advocates will also be allowed to address the panel over the proposals which could go into effect next year.

So what new powers is the FBI seeking? Well, it concerns a proposed operating change to rule 41 of the federal rules of criminal procedure. For the layman, these are the rules under which the FBI is authorised to conduct search warrants. At the moment, search warrants have to be targeted at specific locations where suspected criminal activity is occurring. The warrant also has to be approved by judges located in the same district.

The FBI’s proposed amendment will allow a judge to issue a warrant that would allow the FBI to remote access (or hack) into any computer, no matter where it is located. If the FBI amendment is approved, it would allow the FBI to conduct “network investigative techniques” on computers in America, or the rest of the world.

That could mean the FBI secretly installing spyware or malware onto a computer to provide federal agents with control of the suspect computer. Agents could in theory download all the digital content, switch on the camera or microphone, and even gain control of other computers on the same network.

Civil Liberties

But predictably, the proposed significant increase in the cyber offensive capabilities of the FBI has raised some concern.

“This is a giant step forward for the FBI’s operational capabilities, without any consideration of the policy implications,” Ahmed Ghappour, an expert in computer law at University of California, Hastings college of the law, was quoted by the newspaper as saying.

Ghappour will be one of the experts addressing the panel. “To be seeking these powers at a time of heightened international concern about US surveillance is an especially brazen and potentially dangerous move,” he reportedly said.

And civil liberties groups are also worried that the FBI is looking to transform its cyber capabilities with minimal public debate and with no congressional oversight.

“This is an extremely invasive technique,” Chris Soghoian, principal technologist of the American Civil Liberties Union, who will also be addressing the hearing, was quoted as saying. “We are talking here about giving the FBI the green light to hack into any computer in the country or around the world.”

The FBI request for greater surveillance and hacking powers, comes just weeks after it shut down a “stalking” app.

The FBI arrested the inventor of the “StealthGenie” app which allowed users complete access and control of someone else’s device. It was marketed as a tool for spying on cheating spouses or tracking children’s movements.

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