Google blasts FBI’s “monumental” hacking threat

Google is protesting the federal government’s plan to make it easier for the FBI to hack into the computers of Internet users trying to keep their online activity anonymous.

In a sharply worded, 14-page letter to the U.S. government posted Tuesday, Google’s director for information security and law enforcement, Richard Salgado, said the U.S. Department of Justice’s proposed amendment to federal regulations “raises a number of monumental and highly complex constitutional, legal and geopolitical concerns that should be left to Congress to decide.”

Salgado submitted the letter on the last day of public comments due to a judicial advisory committee that oversees how the federal government conducts prosecutions.

A provision known as Rule 41 requires federal prosecutors to seek a judge’s warrant to seize digital property located within the judicial district where the warrant is requested. The proposed change would allow judges to approve warrants outside their jurisdictions, or in cases where the computer location is unknown because it has “been concealed through technological means” such as the anonymizing program Tor.

That means the changes “will in many cases end up authorizing the government to conduct searches outside the United States,” Salgado wrote.

There are no clear assurances protecting people who legally and routinely use encryption and other methods to protect sensitive information, and many covert searches might never be questioned by the people affected, he wrote.

“Law-abiding citizens who were the target of an unconstitutional search but are not charged with a crime will almost certainly never learn of the search and therefore will not be able to challenge the search,” Salgado wrote.

Defending the proposed rule change was Robert Gay Guthrie, president of the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys, who submitted his own letter describing the rule change as a necessary response “to the challenges created by sophisticated technologies in the hands of criminals.”

“Law enforcement investigations of financial fraud, child pornography, terrorism and other threats to the public often require a remote search of the suspect’s computer,” wrote Guthrie, who represents more than 5,000 federal prosecutors. “But criminal suspects are increasingly using sophisticated anonymizing technologies and proxy services designed to hide their true IP addresses. This creates significant difficulties for law enforcement to identify the district in which the electronic information or an electronic device is located.”

Guthrie said investigators want to be able to use software to allow remote searching of a computer.

But the new rule is too vague about what constitutes remote searching, wrote Google’s Salgado, who suspects that the FBI intends to use NITs, or network investigative techniques, that allow investigators to hack computers, installing software that extracts identifying information.

“In short, ‘remote access’ seems to authorize government hacking of any facility wherever located,” Salgado wrote.

The National Journal first reported about Google’s letter Wednesday.

Google is arguably the most prominent of the more than 30 people and organizations that submitted letters by Tuesday’s deadline. The others included the ACLU, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and someone self-identified as George Orwell whose brief letter began with, “Dude, seriously???”

Above: The Googleplex in Mountain View. (Photo by Matt O’Brien)




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