Google warning: FBI wants to hack any computer in world

Reuters/Francois Lenoir
US search engine giant Google has warned against increasing the government's powers for infiltrating computer systems around the world, saying it would open a number of "monumental" constitutional issues.

Google released a tough-sounding statement against the Department Justice (DoJ) proposal to make it easier for the courts to issue search warrants to seize electronic data ‘remotely’ from anywhere in the world.

Efforts to rewrite federal regulations, presently encoded in a government provision known as Rule 41, "raises a number of monumental and highly complex constitutional, legal, and geopolitical concerns that should be left to Congress to decide," wrote Richard Salgado, Google's director for law enforcement and information security.

Under Rule 41, the judge that authorizes the computer tap must be situated in the same district as the computer under investigation. The new proposal would allow the FBI to operate beyond the immediate judicial area of the presiding judge.

Google warned in its statement that if the DoJ gets its way, the FBI will be authorized to hack into servers regardless of their geopolitical location, thus giving the US government unrestrained access to endless amounts of personal data around the globe.

As Google explains it, such covert invasions of privacy, “may take place anywhere in the world. This concern is not theoretical. ... [T]he nature of today’s technology is such that warrants issued under the proposed amendment will in many cases end up authorizing the government to conduct searches outside the United States.”

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The issue is raising serious concerns for civil watchdog groups, like the American Civil Liberties Union, who fear the government - not only refusing to retreat in the aftermath of the 2013 Snowden revelations, which exposed the tentacles of the National Security Agency wrapped around a large swath of the planet - but is actually moving recklessly ahead with even more obtrusive methods.

“The government is seeking a troubling expansion of its power to surreptitiously hack into computers, including using malware,” the ACLU’s chief technologist, Christopher Soghoian, told the Guardian. “Although this proposal is cloaked in the garb of a minor procedural update, in reality it would be a major and substantive change that would be better addressed by Congress.”

Google echoed those warnings, saying the move threatened legislation protecting Americans against illegal search and seizures.

"The serious and complex constitutional concerns implicated by the proposed amendment are numerous and, because of the nature of Fourth Amendment case law development, are unlikely to be addressed by courts in a timely fashion," Salgado wrote.

Meanwhile, the Justice Department accused critics of "misreading the text of the proposal or misunderstanding current law."

"The proposal would not authorize the government to undertake any search or seizure or use any remote search technique not already permitted under current law,"
Deputy Assistant Attorney General David Bitkower said in a memo written late last year and made public this week.

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DoJ officials say the FBI would only request the new type of warrants where there was “probable cause to search for or seize evidence, fruits, or instrumentalities of crime.”

FBI director James Comey pleaded the government’s case by asking, “Have we become so mistrustful of government and law enforcement in particular that we are willing to let bad guys walk away, willing to leave victims in search of justice?”

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NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, speaking to the New Yorker magazine in an interview in October 2014, defended peoples’ right to their privacy.

“When you say, ‘I have nothing to hide,’ you’re saying, ‘I don’t care about this right.’ You’re saying, ‘I don’t have this right, because I’ve got to the point where I have to justify it,’” Snowden said.

“The way rights work is, the government has to justify its intrusion into your rights – you don’t have to justify why you need freedom of speech.”

Despite his assurances that intelligence agencies like the FBI are "careful to avoid collateral damage when executing remote searches,” skepticism over any enhancement of the government’s data harvesting abilities may prove impossible to mitigate in these more paranoid, post-Snowden times.

Google is the only major tech company to voice its condemnation on the proposed rule changes regulating how the government collects private data.

The public comment period closed on Tuesday.

Before any changes can be made to the current protocol for adopting search warrants, a review by the Supreme Court is required. At that point, Congress would have seven months to act on the proposal.

Failure on the part of US legislators to act on the proposal would result in the changes automatically going into effect.