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Justice Department Seeks 'Quiet' Expansion to Search Warrant Power


"...by changing an arcane federal rule governing how judges can approve search warrants."

Photo credit: Shutterstock

The Justice Department has asked a judicial advisory committee Wednesday to make it easier for the government to obtain search warrants. If the committee grants that request, it would become much easier for law enforcement to hack into and locate computers – regardless of their location, National Journal reported.

(Photo: Shutterstock/JMiks)  (Photo: Shutterstock/JMiks)

A federal provision currently only allows judges to issue a search warrant if the search is within their jurisdiction. But the Justice Department has now requested that judges be allowed to issue warrants for electronic information regardless of the computer's physical location. Such permission would allow the country's highest law enforcement agency to hack into and locate computers that are in other countries.

National Journal, which called it a "quiet" request, explains in more detail:

Government officials are trying to expand their authority to hack into and locate computers by changing an arcane federal rule governing how judges can approve search warrants.

The Justice Department has petitioned a judicial advisory committee to amend a rule that specifies under what conditions magistrate judges can grant the government search warrants.

The provision, known as Rule 41 of the federal rules of criminal procedure, typically allows judges to issue search warrants only within their judicial district. But the government has asked to alter this restriction to allow judges to approve electronic surveillance to find and search a computer's contents regardless of its physical location, even if the device is suspected of being abroad.

The Justice Department's plan to expand its authority would allow it to more easily track and investigate suspects who are using technology to hide their locations or identities.

However, legal researchers like Ahmed Ghappour, a computer law professor at the University of California's Hastings college of law, says the Justice Department's request would be unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable search and seizure.

(Photo: AP via Politico) (Photo: AP via Politico)

"It's like turning on a switch, but instead of turning on a faucet, it's like turning on a fire hose," Ghappour told National Journal. He later warned the change could have unintended consequences, including the ability of the government to spy on computer networks in other countries.

The request came not long after Attorney General Eric Holder called private data encryption by some technology companies "worrisome," because law enforcement agents would be unable to track suspected criminals by tapping into their smartphones.

(H/T: National Journal)

Follow Jon Street (@JonStreet) on Twitter

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