Judge Says FBI Can Hack Computers Without A Warrant Because Computer Users Get Hacked All The Time
from the broken-blinds-policing dept
The FBI’s use of a Network Investigative Technique (NIT) to obtain info from the computers of visitors to a seized child porn site has run into all sorts of problems. The biggest problem in most of the cases is that the use of a single warrant issued in Virginia to perform searches of computers all over the nation violated the jurisdictional limits set down by Rule 41(b). Not coincidentally, the FBI is hoping the changes to Rule 41 the DOJ submitted last year will be codified by the end of 2016, in large part because it removes the stipulation that limits searches to the area overseen by the magistrate judge signing the warrant.
For defendant Edward Matish, the limits of Rule 41 don’t apply. He resides in the jurisdiction where the warrant was signed. He had challenged the veracity of the data obtained by the NIT, pushing the theory that the FBI’s unexamined NIT was insecure (data obtained from targets was sent back to the FBI in unencrypted form) and info could have been altered in transit.
It’s not much of a legal theory as any person performing these alterations would have had to know someone was performing long-distance acquisitions of identifying computer information and the IP addresses normally hidden by the use of Tor.
But that questionable legal theory is nothing compared to those handed down in Judge Henry Coke Morgan Jr.’s denial [pdf] of several motions by Matish. As the judge sees it, the FBI really didn’t even need a warrant. Morgan Jr. says there’s no expectation of privacy in an IP address, even if Tor is used to obscure it, which follows other judges’ conclusions on the same matter. However, Morgan Jr. goes much further.
Morgan Jr. hints at the Third Party Doctrine but refuses to consider the fact that this information was not obtained from third parties, but rather directly from the user’s computer via the FBI’s hacking tool.
The Court recognizes that the NIT used in this case poses questions unique from the conduct at issue in Farrell. In Farrell, the Government never accessed the suspect’s computer in order to discover his IP address, whereas here, the Government deployed a set of computer code to Defendant’s computer, which in turn instructed Defendant’s computer to reveal certain identifying information. The Court, however, disagrees with the magistrate judge in Arterburv. who focused on this distinction, see No. 15-cr-182, ECF No. 42. As the Court understands it, Defendant’s IP address was not located on his computer; indeed, it appears that computers can have various IP addresses depending on the networks to which they connect. Rather, Defendant’s IP address was revealed in transit when the NIT instructed his computer to send other information to the FBI. The fact that the Government needed to deploy the NIT to a computer does not change the fact that Defendant has no reasonable expectation of privacy in his IP address.
This reading of the Third Party Doctrine closely aligns with how the DOJ prefers it to be read. If someone knowingly or unknowingly turns over identifying info to a third party, it now belongs to the government — even if the government obtains it directly through a search/seizure, rather than approaching third parties.
But more disturbing than this is Judge Morgan Jr.’s declaration that no expectation of security is the same thing as no expectation of privacy — first highlighted by Joseph Cox of Motherboard.
“It seems unreasonable to think that a computer connected to the Web is immune from invasion,” Morgan, Jr. adds. “Indeed, the opposite holds true: in today’s digital world, it appears to be a virtual certainty that computers accessing the Internet can—and eventually will—be hacked,” he writes, and then points to a series of media reports on high profile hacks. He posits that users of Tor cannot expect to be safe from hackers.
If hackers can break into computers and extract information, then law enforcement can do the same thing without fear of reprisal or suppression of evidence. Morgan Jr. equates it to “broken blinds” on a house window, where previous rulings have said it’s perfectly fine for passing police officers to peer into windows that don’t completely obscure the house’s interior.
[I]n Minnesota v. Carter, the Supreme Court considered whether a police officer who peered through a gap in a home’s closed blinds conducted a search in violation of the Fourth Amendment. 525 U.S. 83, 85 (1998). Although the Court did not reach this question, id at 91, Justice Breyer in concurrence determined that the officer’s observation did not violate the respondents’ Fourth Amendment rights. Id at 103 (Breyer, J., concurring). Justice Breyer noted that the “precautions that the apartment’s dwellers took to maintain their privacy would have failed in respect to an ordinary passerby standing” where the police officer stood.
But that flies directly in the face of his previous determination that there’s no expectation of privacy in IP addresses, even if a person takes steps to obscure that identifying info. Tor may be imperfect and can be compromised, but applying Morgan Jr.’s analogy to this situation means it’s OK for the FBI to not only peer into the interior of a house, but to break the blinds in order to look inside.
The world Judge Morgan Jr. prefers is clear: that law enforcement should not be bound by the constraints of legal activity and, in fact, should be allowed to deploy hacking tools simply because computers get hacked every day. It’s a judicial shrug that says the good guys should be able to do everything criminals do because the ends justify the means. Morgan Jr. explicitly states that “the balance weighs heavily in favor of surveillance” in cases like these (child pornography prosecutions) because of the criminal activity involved.
The ends will justify the means in cases like these, if Morgan Jr. is overseeing them. Even if you are sympathetic to the judge’s belief that certain crimes call for more drastic law enforcement responses, the fact is that if given this judicial pass, law enforcement will not confine its use of jurisdiction-less warrants and invasive tech tools to only the worst of the worst. We need look no further than the deployment of a Stingray device to track down someone who stole $57 worth of fast food to see how this will play out in real life. The decision — if it stands — opens citizens up to a host of invasive, warrantless searches, just because security breaches are common and the pursuit of criminal suspects is more important than protecting citizens from government overreach.