Boston—An FBI search warrant used to hack into thousands of computers around the world was unconstitutional, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) told a federal appeals court today in a case about a controversial criminal investigation that resulted in the largest known government hacking campaign in domestic law enforcement history.
The Constitution requires law enforcement officers seeking a search warrant to show specific evidence of a possible crime, and tie that evidence to specific persons and places they want to search. These fundamental rules protect people from invasions of privacy and police fishing expeditions.
But the government violated those rules while investigating “Playpen,” a child pornography website operating as a Tor hidden service. During the investigation, the FBI secretly seized servers running the website and, in a controversial decision, continued to operate it for two weeks rather than shut it down, allowing thousands of images to be downloaded. While running the site, the bureau began to hack its visitors, sending malware that it called a “Network Investigative Technique” (NIT) to visitors’ computers. The malware was then used to identify users of the site. Ultimately, the FBI hacked into 8,000 devices located in 120 countries around the world. All of this hacking was done on the basis of a single warrant. The FBI charged hundreds of suspects who visited the website, several of whom are challenging the validity of the warrant.
In a filing today in one such case, U.S. v. Levin, EFF and the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts urged the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit to rule that the warrant is invalid and the searches it authorized unconstitutional because the warrant lacked specifics about who was subject to search and what locations and specific devices should be searched. Because it was running the website, the government was already in possession of information about visitors and their computers. Rather than taking the necessary steps to obtain narrow search warrants using that specific information, the FBI instead sought a single, general warrant to authorize its massive hacking operation. The breadth of that warrant violated the Fourth Amendment.
“No one questions the need for the FBI to investigate serious crimes like child pornography. But even serious crimes can’t justify throwing out our basic constitutional principles. Here, on the basis of a single warrant, the FBI searched 8,000 computers located all over the world. If the FBI tried to get a single warrant to search 8,000 houses, such a request would unquestionably be denied. We can’t let unfamiliar technology and unsavory crimes lead to an erosion of everyone’s Fourth Amendment rights,” said EFF Senior Staff Attorney Mark Rumold.
EFF filed a brief in January in a similar case in the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, and will be filing briefs in Playpen cases in the Third and Tenth Circuits in March. Some trial courts have upheld the FBI’s actions in dangerous decisions that, if ultimately upheld, threaten to undermine individuals’ constitutional privacy protections over information on personal computers.
“These cases will be cited for the future expansion of law enforcement hacking in domestic criminal investigations, and the precedent is likely to impact the digital privacy rights of all Internet users for years to come,” said Andrew Crocker, EFF Staff Attorney. “Recent changes to federal rules for issuing warrants may allow the government to hack into thousands of devices at a time. These devices can belong not just to suspected criminals but also to victims of botnets and other hacking crimes. For that reason, courts need to send a very clear message that vague search warrants that lack the required specifics about who and what is to be searched won’t be upheld.”
For the brief: