The FBI Just Gained Sweeping New Hacking Powers

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Fighting hacking with hacking.Photo: Oliver Nicolaas Ponder /Getty Images/EyeEm

At midnight, the FBI is set to get sweeping new powers, which will allow it to hack millions of computers and phones.

A failed last-ditch effort to block the new rules by Democratic Senator Ron Wyden on Wednesday means that, on Thursday, judges will be able to issue warrants that allow the FBI to remotely access electronic devices anywhere in the United States and possibly even abroad. Previously, judges could only issue warrants to computers in their jurisdictions, rarely larger than a few counties.

Not only will the FBI be able to access individual devices, but in crimes that utilize networks consisting of millions of computers it can now request a blanket warrant to remotely access all of them.

On Wednesday, Wyden railed against the new law, calling it “one of the biggest mistakes in surveillance policy in years,” and warned that it would give the government “unprecedented authority to hack into Americans’ personal phones, computers and other devices.”

The Democratic senator tried three times to block the changes, but each time he was foiled by the Senate’s second-ranking Republican, Senator John Cornyn of Texas.

The changes have taken on a new significance as Donald Trump’s presidency looms. Speaking on the Senate floor, Wyden reminded his colleagues that the new rules would not require any kind of congressional oversight or approval and that the president-elect has “openly said he wants the power to hack his political opponents the same way Russia does.”

“Without a single congressional hearing, without a shred of meaningful public input, without any opportunity for senators to ask their questions in a public forum,” argued Wyden, “one judge with one warrant would be able to authorize the hacking of thousands, possibly millions of devices, cell phones and tablets.”

Only three senators spoke out in opposition of the rule-change: two of Wyden’s fellow Democrats, as well as Montana senator Steve Daines, a Republican.

The new rules also have the support of the Justice Department, which has said that the need for modernizing procedures in the face of high-tech crime far outweighs any potentials for abuse. And there have been real-world cases in which the new rules would have helped law enforcement. Reuters gives the example of multiple judges in recent months who have had to dismiss evidence gathered in a large-scale child-pornography sting. That evidence would have been admissible under the new guidelines.

Earlier in the week Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell wrote a blog post in support of the changes and addressed people’s fears that the FBI would take advantage of the new rules to violate their privacy. She wrote:

The possibility of such harm must be balanced against the very real and ongoing harms perpetrated by criminals - such as hackers, who continue to harm the security and invade the privacy of Americans through an ongoing botnet, or pedophiles who openly and brazenly discuss their plans to sexually assault children.