Senators seek to block expanded hacking powers for FBI

The Justice Department says greater authority is necessary to pursue anonymous criminals, but some senators oppose what they say is an encroachment on Americans' digital rights.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.)

Sens. Rand Paul (left) and Ron Wyden have introduced legislation to reverse a Supreme Court decision that would allow U.S. judges to issue search warrants for computers outside their jurisdictions.

A bipartisan pair of senators has introduced a bill to block an expansion of the FBI's hacking powers that the Supreme Court approved last month.

Privacy hawks Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) introduced the Stopping Mass Hacking Act on May 19, which they say would prevent a dramatic attack on Americans' digital rights. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization that advocates online privacy, applauded the bill.

The court-approved rule change would allow U.S. judges to issue search warrants for computers outside their jurisdictions. Congress has until Dec. 1 to reverse the decision before it takes effect. The one-page Wyden-Paul bill would do that -- and only that.

The Justice Department has long sought the rule change, arguing that such "remote searches" are often the only way to unmask sophisticated online criminals. But IT security experts interviewed by FCW expressed concern that the rule change could make average internet users less safe. Justice officials counter that the amendment does not change the rules governing probable cause and notice.

"Such a substantive change with an enormous impact on Americans' constitutional rights should be debated by Congress, not maneuvered through an obscure bureaucratic process," Wyden said in a statement.

The bill's other sponsors are Sens. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Steve Daines (R-Mont.) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.).

"Congress must act to prevent this threat to the privacy of law-abiding Americans and ensure a rule change of this magnitude has the proper oversight," Baldwin said in a statement.

Michigan Rep. John Conyers, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, hinted at support for a companion bill in the House, which Wyden's office said is coming soon.

"Many in the House, both Democrats and Republicans, remain concerned about the investigatory techniques at the heart of this discussion," Conyers said in a statement. "We will continue to study the issue, and when appropriate, we hope to join Senator Wyden in his call to block the change."

A Justice spokesperson declined to comment on the bill but countered Wyden's assertion that the amendment to Rule 41 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, as the rule change is known, was made through an "obscure bureaucratic process."

The change was made after substantive public comments and testimony, a Justice statement said, adding that the amendment "would make clear that where the suspect has hidden the location of his computer using technological means, agents know which judge to [approach] to apply for a warrant."

The statement also said the amendment would make it easier for the government to take down botnets, which are hijacked computers that wreak havoc on the internet and are a hot topic in Washington right now.

"This rule change would permit agents to go to one federal judge rather than submit separate warrant applications to each of the 94 federal districts" to combat botnets, the statement said. "That duplication of effort makes no sense."