Senators plan last-ditch push to curb US law-enforcement hacking power

A rule change allowing law enforcement agencies to hack remote computers goes into effect Thursday unless Congress acts

US Capitol

The U.S. Capitol in Washington.

Credit: Elizabeth Heichler

Unless Congress takes 11th-hour action, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies will gain new authority this week to hack into remote computers during criminal investigations.

Proposed changes to Rule 41, the search and seizure provision in the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, would give U.S. law enforcement agencies the authority to cross jurisdictional lines and hack computers anywhere in the world during criminal investigations.

The rules, in most cases, now prohibit federal judges from issuing a search warrant outside their jurisdictions. The changes, approved by the U.S. Supreme Court in April at the request of the Department of Justice, go into effect on Thursday unless Congress moves to reverse them.

Lawmakers opposed to the changes are planning a last-minute push to roll them back. Senators will attempt to bring the issue to a vote on Wednesday, said a spokesman for Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat.

Wyden and four other senators are sponsors of the Stop Mass Hacking Act, a bill to reverse the proposed changes. A similar bill in the House of Representatives has 12 co-sponsors. Two other bills, introduced earlier this month, would delay the proposed changes to give Congress more time to debate them.

Even if Congress fails to act this week, lawmakers could roll back the changes after the rules change goes into effect, a spokesman for Wyden said in an email.

The DOJ has argued that it needs the changes to investigate crimes aided by computers with locations masked by technology such as VPNs. Opponents have argued the changes would violate the civil rights and privacy of internet users.

The new rule "would invite law enforcement to seek warrants authorizing them to hack thousands of computers at once," a coalition of tech groups and digital rights group said in a June letter.

The coalition of 50 tech groups, digital rights groups, and tech companies, also argued the rule change could have unintended consequences that hurt network security efforts.

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