New US law gives intelligence agencies huge scope to hack legally

It would appear the US is not happy with the unprecedented power granted to intelligence agencies in the UK through the Snoopers Charter, so it’s revamped its own rules to make sure they are the spy kings.

Jamie Davies

December 1, 2016

4 Min Read
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It would appear the US is not happy with the unprecedented power granted to intelligence agencies in the UK through the Snoopers Charter, so it’s revamped its own rules to make sure they are the spy kings.

The move has snuck under the radar mostly, but sets a worrying trend in the global political arena; despite protest from privacy advocates, politicians don’t seem to care and are happy to extend the power and influence of intelligence agencies without concern for consequences. This latest move by US lawmakers wasn’t even debated in the House of Congress, which considering the gravity of the new laws is truly remarkable.

The changes are focused on Rule 41 of the federal rules of criminal procedure which had previously limited the scope of intelligence agencies and their abilities to hack devices on a mass scale. As of today judges will be able to issue warrants that allow government agencies to remotely access electronic devices anywhere in the United States and even internationally.

The intelligence agencies are not only able to access individual devices but in crimes that utilize networks consisting of millions of computers it can now request a blanket warrant to remotely access all of them. How the intelligence agencies will now be held accountable is unknown as they now have blank cheque to basically hack any device or computer they see fit. The opportunity for abuse is now huge, and it’s not like some intelligence agencies needed this helping hand considering previous scandals.

“By sitting here and doing nothing, the Senate has given consent to this expansion of government hacking and surveillance,” said Democratic Senator for Oregon Ron Wyden. “Law-abiding Americans are going to ask ‘what were you guys thinking? when the FBI starts hacking victims of a botnet hack. Or when a mass hack goes awry and breaks their device, or an entire hospital system and puts lives at risk.”

Hacking into devices does pose a risk as the device or computer may be damaged and data may be corrupted, and while this might be a worrying consequence, the fact Wyden had to be so prominent in opposed the rules is a larger concern.

As the law can be deemed relevant to national security, rules can be amended without the need to lobby or debate in the House of Congress. In other words, the US Department of Justice was able to make worrying changes to US law, in the process granting intelligence agencies unprecedented freedom and access to hack citizens devices and computers without seeking permission from politicians who supposedly represent the citizens. How a law of such importance can be passed without debate or scrutiny is truly remarkable.

“While the proposed changes are not necessarily bad or good, they are serious, and they present significant privacy concerns that warrant careful consideration and debate,” said Democratic Senator for Delaware Chris Coons. “That’s why I joined my colleagues from both sides of the aisle today in calling for prompt passage of our legislation to delay implementation of the changes for six months. It is our responsibility to do our jobs and thoroughly evaluate the merits and ramifications of the proposed changes.”

As the Supreme Court approved the move in a private vote earlier this year, the changes were not subject to congressional approval. The only way to prevent the bills passing to law, at least for seven months to allow time for elected officials and representatives of US citizens time to debate the consequences and benefits of any changes, was to gain enough support from Congress.

Teaming up with politicians on the other side of the spectrum, most notably Steve Daines, the Republican Senator from Montana, Wyden called for unanimous consent to pass the Stopping Mass Hacking Act, the Review the Rule Act, and the Stalling Damaging Mass Hacking Act. Each bill would delay the implementation of the rule change. All were shot down by leaders in the Republican Party.

In the UK, the Snoopers Charter, officially known as the Investigatory Powers Act, was initially proposed in June 2015, and only passed through the Houses completely in the last couple of weeks. The law grants significant surveillance powers to the intelligence agencies, and thus was subject to scrutiny and public debate, to ensure the government and its agencies can still be held accountable to the people who they are supposed to be serving.

The efficiency in which the US can pass a bill to law without anyone realizing is impressive and devastatingly worrying at the same time. Perhaps even more worrying is the attitude of President-elect Donald Trump who has previously stated he would want the same surveillance powers as Russian President Vladimir Putin; considering its track-record, Russia may not be the country to emulate in this circumstance.

The Land of the Free is about to become a lot smaller.

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