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Rule 41, the FBI and the Power to Probe

The Feds can peer into your computer and life.

What do hackers, Internet thieves, terrorist groups and other cyber criminals have in common?

They don't play by the rules.

They will hack, attack, mislead, spread viruses and take over computers to do their dastardly deeds, without concern for the law or their victims. Internet crime and cyberespionage has dramatically increased over the years.

So, it's only fitting that a recent (December 2016) change to United States Federal guidelines designed to track down online bad guys revolves around a rule.

Rule 41 to be exact.

Starting in early December of 2016, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and other legal organizations were granted more leeway into peering into public and private networks in search of suspected online criminals.

The permission was granted with the amending of Rule 41, a change recommended and presented to, and approved by, the U.S. Supreme Court. Rule 41 is one of the many Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. The amendment recommendation came from a group of federal judges whose job it is to recommend such changes.

Rule 41 makes law enforcement happier.

The FBI is and other law agencies are pleased with their new powers. The rule change takes the limits off previous investigative procedures that, in the FBI's view, prevented them from tracking down genuine Internet criminals and exposing online threats.

Before the change, the FBI or any police or investigative group could request a warrant to gain permission to essentially "hack" the computers of suspected criminals. However, they had to limit their investigation to the district or area where the warrant was issued.

The new change to Rule 41 allows the FBI to hack into computers wherever they might be located. The government claims they have a perfectly legitimate reason for needing that extra power. Hacking isn't a one hacker/one victim scenario, they say. Most often, hackers and cyber-terrorists take over computers across the country to spread the attack, make the attack larger in scale and hide their own involvement.

After all, hackers don't want to get caught. They don't leave simple digital "breadcrumbs" investigators can follow to track the hackers down.

And certainly, as you probably agree, most citizens would want their law enforcement officials to catch the bad guys—terrorists, hacker groups, credit card thieves, data thieves and credit account/money thieves—using any means possible.

Why are some people are upset and worried?

Many groups who monitor the Internet and privacy rights of citizens are anything but happy and aren't welcoming the change. The see the increased powers as a severe threat to our Internet privacy.

They recognize that the FBI and other law enforcement agencies will search multiple computers across the country with one warrant signed authorized by one judge. Privacy activist say, sure, the old rule may have limited the Feds' power to investigate, but at least it kept law enforcement in check and prevented them from abusing their powers.

Now, privacy activists say, the FBI and law enforcement has been given permission to abuse the privacy of all individuals.

Abusing the rights of innocent citizens.

It isn't just the broader geographical scope that has privacy groups concerned. It's also the invasive powers that the FBI and law enforcement can use more often and more forcefully.

By obtaining a computer "search" warrant from nearly any judge, privacy activists say, law enforcement can...

  • hack into citizens' computers and attempt to zero in on their location if they are using a virtual private network (VPN) or Tor, an anonymous browser
  • hack into citizen computers that were affected by (meaning, taken over) by botnet attacks—that's where malware in someone's computer allows a hacker to manipulate it

In other words, law enforcement can rifle through your computer files like they might rifle through your underwear draw. There goes your sense of privacy.

Rule 41 is "live."

The Supreme Court has approved the change and it's in effect until, and unless, the U.S. Congress decides to enact legislation to overturn it.

But that hasn't happened yet.

There are a handful of online Internet freedom and privacy groups that have promised to keep pressure on lawmakers to change the rule. They claim that it is a "dangerous expansion" of the governments' investigation and surveillance powers.

So, as of now the newly revised Rule 41 is in effect.

We can only hope that the government's intentions are only for your good and that they value the privacy of the all the citizens they're sworn to protect.

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