At Odds with Google, U.S. Seeks New Computer Access Rule

The Justice Department is at odds with Google and privacy groups over the government's push to make it easier to locate and hack into computers in criminal investigations, a simmering conflict with constitutional and policy implications.

Federal prosecutors say better tools are needed to track down computer users who hide their locations while committing crimes on the Internet. But civil libertarians fear that the proposal, now 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 The government says those rules are outdated in an era when child pornographers, drug traffickers and others can mask their whereabouts on computer networks that offer anonymity. That 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, even those 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.

There are 94 federal judicial districts in the country -- at least one in every state, and as many as four in some.

"There is a substantial public interest in catching and prosecuting criminals who use anonymizing technologies, but locating them can be impossible for law enforcement absent the ability to conduct a remote search of the criminal's computer," Justice Department lawyers wrote in one memo.

The advisory committee considering the rule...

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