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Supreme Court Quietly Approves Rule to Give FBI ‘Sprawling’ Hacking Powers

The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday quietly approved a rule change that would allow a federal magistrate judge to issue a search and seizure warrant for any target using anonymity software like Tor to browse the internet.

Absent action by U.S. Congress, the rule change (pdf) will go into effect in December. The FBI would then be able to search computers remotely—even if the bureau doesn’t know where that computer is located—if a user has anonymity software installed on it.

The rule changes, which the FBI said were necessary to combat cybercrime, come amid escalating tensions between the intelligence community and technology and privacy advocates, and just a day after the U.S. House of Representatives advanced a bill that would require the government to obtain a probable cause warrant from a judge before seizing data stored with tech companies such as Facebook, Google, and Dropbox.

“These amendments will have significant consequences for Americans’ privacy.”
—Sen. Ron Wyden

“Whatever euphemism the FBI uses to describe it—whether they call it a ‘remote access search’ or a ‘network investigative technique’—what we’re talking about is government hacking, and this obscure rule change would authorize a lot more of it,” said Kevin Bankston, director of the policy advocacy group Open Technology Institute (OTI), which previously testified against the changes. “Congress should stop this power-grab in its tracks and instead demand answers from the FBI, which so far has been ducking Congress’ questions on this issue and fighting in court to keep its hacking tactics secret.”

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