Judge Says The FBI Can Keep Its Hacking Tool Secret, But Not The Evidence Obtained With It
from the hope-the-feds-enjoy-their-victory-over-transparency dept
Judge Robert Bryan -- having set his own house against itself by declaring the FBI could keep its NIT info secret while simultaneously declaring the defendant in the child porn case had every right to see it -- has managed to find a way out of his self-induced conundrum. And it's going to make the FBI very sad. (h/t Ars Technica)
For the reasons stated orally on the record, evidence of the N.I.T., the search warrant issued based on the N.I.T., and the fruits of that warrant should be excluded and should not be offered in evidence at trial.
Well, not quite.
Michaud hasn't had the case against him dismissed, but the government will now have to rely on evidence it didn't gain access to by using its illegal search. And there can't be much of that, considering the FBI had no idea who Michaud was or where he resided until after the malware-that-isn't-malware had stripped away Tor's protections and revealed his IP address.
The FBI really can't blame anyone but itself for this outcome. Judge Bryan may have agreed that the FBI had good reason to keep its technique secret, but there was nothing preventing the FBI from voluntarily turning over details on its hacking tool to Michaud. But it chose not to, despite his lawyer's assurance it would maintain as much of the FBI's secrecy as possible while still defending his client.
Judge Bryan found the FBI's ex parte arguments persuasive and declared the agency could keep the info out of Michaud's hands. But doing so meant the judicial playing field was no longer level, as he acknowledged in his written ruling. Fortunately, the court has decided it's not going to allow the government to have its secrecy cake and eat it, too. If it wants to deploy exploits with minimal judicial oversight, then it has to realize it can't successfully counter suppression requests with vows of silence.
It's doubtful the FBI will learn from this experience. It did the same thing in 2012 and received nothing but deference from the courts. This time around, courts and lawyers are better educated, thanks to Snowden's leaks and a few hundred FOIA warriors -- all of whom have served to expose the massive, secret expansion of the government's surveillance reach and the near-complete dearth of effective oversight.
The FBI will be pushing hard for the adoption of the proposed Rule 41 changes. If these had been in place, every illegal search it performed using its NIT and the invalid warrant it obtained would have been legal. As it stands now, however, multiple courts have examined the warrant and the hacking tool and found the FBI's actions to be in violation of current statutes. What should have been slam-dunk prosecutions against unsympathetic defendants have instead become multiple participants in an ongoing debacle.