Senators introduce bill to block expansion of FBI hacking authority

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A small group of bipartisan senators introduced a bill Thursday that would block a pending judicial rule change allowing U.S. judges to issue search warrants for remote access to computers in any jurisdiction, even overseas, arguing the change would expand the FBI’s hacking authority.

The one-page legislation from Democratic Senator Ron Wyden and Republican Senator Rand Paul would undo the change, adopted by the U.S. Supreme Court in a private vote last month and without congressional involvement, to procedural rules governing the court system.

Republican Senator Steve Daines and Democrats Tammy Baldwin and Jon Tester are co-sponsoring the Stopping Mass Hacking Act.

Magistrate judges currently can only order searches within the jurisdiction of their court, typically limited to a few counties.

“This is a dramatic expansion of the government’s hacking and surveillance authority,” Wyden said in a statement. “Such a substantive change with an enormous impact on Americans’ constitutional rights should be debated by Congress, not maneuvered through an obscure bureaucratic process.”

Companion legislation is expected in the House soon, Wyden’s office said.

The U.S. Justice Department has pushed for the rule change since 2013 and has portrayed it as a procedural tweak needed to modernize the criminal code to pursue sophisticated 21st century criminals.

Congress has until Dec. 1 to vote to reject, amend or postpone the changes to Rule 41 of the federal rules of criminal procedure. If lawmakers fail to act, the change will automatically take effect, a scenario seen as likely given the short timeline.

But civil liberties groups and Alphabet’s Google have argued the change should be properly authorized by Congress and could violate the U.S. Constitution’s protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Many organizations have vowed to lobby Congress intensely in the coming months to block it.

The change would permit judges to issue warrants in cases where a suspect uses anonymizing technology to conceal the location of his or her computer or for an investigation into a network of hacked or infected computers, such as a botnot.

Tensions over the FBI’s secretive hacking tools, also known as “network investigative techniques,” have played out in a number of recent cases involving the bureau’s covert seizure of a dark web child pornography website in February 2015 to track thousands of the site’s visitors.

Two defendants in the investigation secured rulings last month declaring the warrants used in their cases were invalid under current limitations of Rule 41.

(Editing by Bernadette Baum)