A law was passed as of Dec. 1, 2016 allowing Federal agents an even greater scope for spying on computers belonging to regular citizens, thanks to a controversial amendment.
The long-standing Rule 41 governs how the FBI can search and seize property thought to be involved with crime. Its most recent amendment expands the search remit to include remote access of computers whose locations have been “concealed through technological means.”
the FBI can now obtain a warrant to hack any device whose IP address is masked. This can include computers using a virtual proxy network (VPN), a common internet tool used to maintain privacy on public Wi-Fi networks, to watch Netflix (and other geo-restricted media) from another country, to improve streaming speeds or simply to remain anonymous online. Similarly vulnerable under the updated rule are computers running the Tor browser, which users use for privacy and security or to browse the Deep Web for reasons including visiting illegal sites and accessing secured communications for political dissidents and whistle-blowers.
The amendment also makes it legal to search computers that have been “damaged without authorization” — that is, subjected to malware such as hijacking into botnets used to launch distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks. Considering that 16 million American households experienced serious virus problems in the past two years, that’s a lot of computers that the FBI could legally hack.
“This unprecedented increase in government hacking authority gives the government ability to more easily infiltrate, monitor, copy data from, inject malware into and otherwise damage computers, including victims of a crime, remotely,” said Nate Cardozo, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).
Under the new Rule 41, any computer with a hidden IP address or location can be included in the scope of a search warrant. Warrants can be granted in any jurisdiction and used to search multiple location-masking computers anywhere.