Bill Would Block Mass Computer Searches Under Single Warrant

Latest salvo in debate over privacy vs. security

Yet another front has opened in the tug-of-war among computer companies, Congress and the Obama Administration over cybersecurity versus privacy.

Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) were feeling the love from tech companies and others Thursday (May 19) for introducing the Stopping Mass Hack Act, which is targeted not at shady offshore Web denizens but U.S. law enforcement.

The senators introduced the bill to block recently approved changes to government surveillance rules that would allow the government, with a single warrant, to "hack an unlimited number of computers" if those computers had been "affected by criminals," even without letting the computer owners know the government was accessing their computers. Sens. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.), Steve Daines (R-Mont.) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.) are original co-sponsors of the bill.

The senators say those changes should have been debated by Congress. They go into effect Dec. 1 unless Congress steps in.

The Justice Department requested the change to Rule 41 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, which the Supreme Court approved. The main changes, according to the Senators, are the single warrant for multiple -- potentially millions -- of searches, and allowing remote searches when law enforcement doesn't know the location of a device.

“The government hacking proposal that will automatically go into effect unless Congress passes the Stopping Mass Hacking Act represents a serious expansion of law enforcement powers," said Kevin Bankston, director of New America’s Open Technology Institute, "yet Congress has never had a chance to consider the complex issues raised by such a significant change to the law. Unless Congress acts now, these new government hacking rules will grant the Justice Department dangerous and unprecedented authority to hack millions of Americans, many of whom may only be guilty of being the victim of a malicious cyber attack themselves.”

Ross Schulman, Open Technology Institute senior counsel, added, “We thank Senators Wyden and Paul for introducing this important bill." New America funders include Google, Netflix, Comcast and Dish.

“We welcome Senators Wyden and Paul’s efforts to prevent this highly controversial rule change from taking effect," said Computer and Communications Industry Association president Ed Black. "They recognize that the far-reaching implications of the government’s proposed changes merit the full attention of their colleagues in Congress. There are constitutional, international, and technological questions that ought to be addressed transparently before such a broad rule change.

CCIA's members, in addition to Google, Netflix and Dish, include Amazon, Yahoo, eBay, Microsoft, and Sprint.