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Computer-related search warrants transformed by new Supreme Court Rule

supreme court rule expands computer related search warrants fbi building 02
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The U.S. Supreme Court has issued a rule that will expand the reach of the FBI and other law enforcement agencies to access any computer in any jurisdiction based on a single warrant.

On Thursday the Supreme Court approved a change to the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure so as to permit federal courts to issue search warrants that will enable access to information stored on computers in any jurisdiction, and not just the jurisdiction of the issuing court.

Congress will have until December 1 to reject or change the rule. If it does not act, the new powers will come into effect. Reuters reports that Congress typically doesn’t exercise this power and likely won’t in an election year.

The law pertains to Rule 41 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, which regulates the circumstances under which a judge can issue a warrant.

As the law currently stands, a court can only issue a warrant to law enforcement to act within its jurisdiction. However the new rules would not limit the application of a warrant to a jurisdictional boundary. According to opponents of the law change, it could have international ramifications by allowing law enforcement to hack into any computer as part of an investigation.

The American Civil Liberties Union, Access Now, and Google all opposed the rule change, which the Department of Justice has been seeking since 2013.

Senator Ron Wyden from Oregon criticized the authorization of the new powers, saying they will have “significant consequences for Americans’ privacy.”

“Under the proposed rules, the government would now be able to obtain a single warrant to access and search thousands or millions of computers at once; and the vast majority of the affected computers would belong to the victims, not the perpetrators, of a cybercrime,” said Wyden, who has promised to introduce legislation to address the issue.

The law could have serious implications for the privacy of not just U.S. citizens but also anyone globally. Ahmed Ghappour, a professor at UC Hastings that specializes in Internet privacy and crime, published a paper earlier this year that highlighted how blanket surveillance and hacking at the hands of the FBI could run afoul of international law and the laws of the other jurisdictions the agency is accessing.

Jonathan Keane
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Jonathan is a freelance technology journalist living in Dublin, Ireland. He's previously written for publications and sites…
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