PINDROP BLOG

New Bills Seek to Delay Expanded Hacking Powers Under Rule 41

As the deadline for Congress to act on a proposed change that would give federal law enforcement agencies expanded power to hack remote computers, a group of senators has introduced a bill to delay the rule change until next summer.

The proposed change to Rule 41 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure would allow law enforcement officials to get a single warrant from essentially any judge where things related to a given crime have occurred to remotely search computers that might be involved in the crime. The modification also would allow officers to remotely search computers of victims of computer crimes.

Privacy advocates and some legislators say that the change would constitute a huge a expansion of government hacking powers, while Department of Justice officials and supporters of the change say it’s simply a procedural change. The United States Supreme Court approved the change in April and it is scheduled to go into effect on Dec. 1. Congress has the ability to enact legislation to prevent the change, but so far has not.

“The proposed changes are serious, and present significant privacy concerns.”

On Thursday, a group of five senators introduced a bill that would keep Rule 41 as-is for now and delay the change until July 1, 2017. The idea is to give Congress time to consider the consequences of the proposed change. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), one of the sponsors of the new bill, has expressed concern about the change to the rule for months.

“We know that Rule 41 would be a massive expansion of government hacking, putting at risk the liberty of the American people. There’s no telling what kind of impact secret government malware could have on our devices, on the networks that run our hospitals, electric grids and transportation systems,” Wyden said in June.

Now, the Senate bill, along with a companion bill in the House of Representatives, would give lawmakers ample time to consider the effects of the proposed change.

“The proposed changes are serious, and present significant privacy concerns that warrant careful consideration and debate,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and a sponsor of the Senate bill.

“Our bicameral, bipartisan legislation will give Congress time to do our job and carefully consider and evaluate the merits of these proposed changes to the government’s ability to search personal computers and other digital devices. It is essential that these rules strike a careful balance: giving law enforcement the tools it needs to keep us safe, while also protecting Americans’ constitutional rights to privacy and freedom from unreasonable searches.”

With the Thanksgiving holiday looming and the Dec. 1 deadline the week after that, action on the bills would have to come quickly.

“We’ve long expressed concerns that the proposed changes to Rule 41 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure threatens privacy and security, and we hope Congress acts on this new bill to give this issue the time and consideration it deserves,” Kate Tumarrello of the EFF said in a post on the bills.

Image: Justin, CC By-SA 2.0 license.