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The Year in Government Hacking: 2016 in Review

December 26, 2016

There's no question that this has been a big year for government hacking. Not a day has gone by without some mention of it in the news. 2016 may forever be remembered as the year when government hacking went so mainstream that Stephen Colbert cracked jokes about Fancy Bear and Cozy Bear on The Late Show. The Obama administration has publicly blamed the Russian government for a series of compromises of U.S. political institutions and individuals in this election year, including the Democratic National Committee, the Republican National Committee, and John Podesta, former Chairman of the Hillary Clinton election campaign. Political espionage is nothing new, but what distinguishes this series of attacks is the element of publication. This election cycle was dominated by news stories stemming from DNC and Podesta emails leaked to and published by Wikileaks, which has repeatedly said that it will not comment on sources but denies that the source of the documents is Russian.

Whether or not Kremlin-directed hacking tipped the scales in this year's presidential election towards Donald Trump is unclear, but paranoia about Russian hacking has successfully sown confusion all over the world. The Obama administration has ordered a full review of foreign-based digital attacks aimed at disrupting the election and European governments are reportedly bracing for Russian interference in next year's elections in France, Germany, and the Netherlands.

But Russia did not corner the market on developments in government hacking this year. In February, a U.S. federal magistrate judge ordered Apple to break the security of an iPhone as part of the investigation into the 2015 San Bernardino shootings. Apple fought the order on the grounds that complying would compromise the security of all iPhone users. Technology companies and civil society spoke out stridently against this dangerous precedent and eventually the FBI withdrew its request after they found another way to access the contents of the iPhone.

Not all efforts to expand government hacking powers were met with the same success as the showdown between Apple and the FBI. 2016 also saw dangerous changes to Rule 41 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure that will allow the FBI to request a warrant from practically any magistrate judge in any district in the United States whenever they are investigating a crime and encounter computers using location-obscuring technology. Not to be outdone, the U.K. passed the sweeping Investigatory Powers Bill, which grants the government the power to compel companies to secretly backdoor their encrypted communications.

In the meantime, certain types of Chinese government hacking appear to be on the decline, probably as a result of the 2015 agreement between the United States and China that neither government would “conduct or knowingly support cyber-enabled theft of intellectual property” for an economic advantage. Activist groups, such as Tibetan and Uyghur minorities in China, appear to remain fair game.

This article is part of our Year In Review series. Read other articles about the fight for digital rights in 2016.

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