US at Odds With Google on Computer Search-Warrant Proposal

A Justice Department proposal that could make it easier to locate and hack into computers that are part of criminal investigations is raising constitutional concerns from privacy groups and Google, who fear the plan could have broad implications.

Federal prosecutors say their search warrant proposal is needed at a time when computer users are committing crimes in online anonymity while concealing their locations. But civil libertarians fear the rule change, under consideration by a federal advisory committee, would grant the government expansive new powers to reach into computers across the country.

The proposal would change existing rules of criminal procedure that, with limited exceptions, permit judges to approve warrants for property searches only in the districts where they serve. The government says those rules are outdated in an era when child pornographers, drug traffickers and others can mask their whereabouts on computer networks that offer anonymity. Such technology can impede or thwart efforts to pinpoint a suspect’s geographic location.

The Justice Department wants the rules changed so that judges in a district where “activities related to a crime” have occurred could approve warrants to search computers outside their districts. The government says that flexibility is needed for cases in which the government can’t figure out the location of a computer and needs a warrant to access it remotely, and for investigations involving botnets — networks of computers infected with a virus that spill across judicial districts.

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