Press Releases: February 2017
Appeals Court Should Find Warrant Violated Fourth Amendment Protections
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:
Supreme Court Must End Texas’ Grip on Patent Cases, Restore Fairness in Court Selection
Washington, D.C.—The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) urged the Supreme Court to overturn a court decision that tilted the scales in favor of patent trolls by making it easier for them to venue shop and file lawsuits in certain courts.
Venue shopping, also called forum shopping, is an insidious practice whereby parties to a lawsuit look for courts with procedures favorable to their cases. Unfortunately, some courts have engaged in an even more insidious practice known as forum selling by actively encouraging patent lawsuits in their districts. For example, a court might adopt plaintiff-friendly procedures and policies that undermine the rights of defendants.
One such court is the Eastern District of Texas, a rural area with almost no manufacturing, research, or technology facilities, where more than one-third of all patent cases in the country were filed last year. That proportion is no accident: patent litigants flock to Texas because the court has put in place a host of procedures that make it difficult for defendants to terminate meritless cases early, while also speeding up the time it takes for cases to go to trial.
Those procedures drive up litigation costs for defendants, which in turn puts more pressure on them to settle cases even if they believe they should win. Such pressure is especially beneficial to patent trolls—companies that don’t make any products but buy up patents, many of questionable validity, in order to file often frivolous infringement lawsuits to extract settlements.
This kind of venue shopping in patent cases was made possible by a 1990 court decision that upended decades-old rules that required patent cases be filed in locations that were fair and convenient to the person being involuntarily brought into court—such as the location of the defendant’s primary place of business. In a filing today in the lawsuit TC Heartland v. Kraft Foods, EFF asked the Supreme Court to overturn the 1990 decision and bring back basic fairness to patent litigation. Kraft Foods, based in Illinois, sued Indiana-based TC Heartland for patent infringement in Delaware, where the defendant has no offices or contracts.
“The Supreme Court can fix a rampant problem in patent law and make the process more fair and balanced. As it stands, many defendants can be hauled into court in any corner of the country, regardless of whether the location has anything to do with either party,” said EFF Staff Attorney Vera Ranieri. “Forum shopping harms all defendants, but it’s especially burdensome for small companies or individuals with limited means to travel to distant places or fight costly lawsuits.”
“Patent owners aren’t the only ones taking advantage of a bad court decision. Forum selling by courts is a black stain on the judicial system. Our courts shouldn’t be tilting the scales so that forum, as opposed to merits, ends up deciding the outcome of a case,” said Ranieri. “Venue shopping and selling drives up the costs of innovation for inventors and erodes trust in our courts. The Supreme Court can and should fix this problem.”
For more on this case: