Tor Joins Movement Against Expanding Hacking Powers

The Tor Project on Monday made a public plea for others to speak out against the proposed amendments to Rule 41 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure.

The Tor Project on Monday made a public plea for others to speak out against the proposed amendments to Rule 41 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, which are taking effect Dec. 1 barring a Congressional injunction.

The amendments would expand the Department of Justice’s ability to hack computers and conduct surveillance through the issuance of a single search warrant regardless of jurisdiction.

The amendments specify that computers using technology to conceal data, i.e., encryption or tools such as the Tor browser, would fall under the scope of these changes.

Last Thursday, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) said on the Senate floor that Congress must discuss and debate the proposed changes.

“If the Senate does nothing, if the Senate fails to act, what’s ahead for Americans is a massive expansion of government hacking and surveillance powers,” Wyden said. In May, Wyden introduced the Stop Mass Hacking Act (H.R. 5321), a one-line bill that simply states: “To prevent the proposed amendments to rule 41 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure from taking effect.”

Tor users, many of which include journalists, human rights workers, activists and others in oppressed areas of the world, would be in the crosshairs of this bill.

“The FBI will be permitted to hack into a person’s computer or phone remotely and to search through and remove their data,” the Tor Project said. “The FBI will be able to introduce malware into computers. It will create vulnerabilities that will leave users exposed.”

One such case is being legislated in Washington where a Vancouver teacher is on trial for allegedly possessing child pornography he is accused of downloading from a dark web site called Playpen. The FBI seized control of the website in February 2015 and installed malware on the site that would infect visitors’ computers and beacon their IP address and other system information to law enforcement.

The FBI’s network investigative technique, or NIT, has been kept under wraps and evidence gathered by the malware will not be allowed during the trial because the FBI refuses to share details about it in public. The Tor Project, for one, has been vocal about the FBI sharing what it knows so that it can patch the vulnerability being exploited in its code.

This is just the latest in a long chorus of surveillance fights that have dominated headlines this year, going back to the Apple-FBI squabble over unlocking a dead terrorist’s phone. The Tor Project said this is a critical time regarding surveillance legislation and it fears that those in government and law enforcement who understand the ramifications of legislature such as the amendments to Rule 41 are taking advantage of others who may not.

“Rule 41 will allow savvy law enforcement officials to seek those judges who don’t yet understand the tech,” the Tor Project said, painting a similar picture among members of Congress. Tor’s public plea argues that Tor and other encryption and anonymity tools enforce separation of powers.

“Some know that a back door for one good guy is eventually a back door for multiple bad guys. Many others do not,” the Tor Project said. “So some US officials can take advantage of this ignorance in order to expand their power. And since the FBI works for the Department of Justice, and the Department of Justice works for the White House, Rule 41 gives new surveillance power to the Administrative branch of US government. New power over millions of people—that Congress never discussed or approved.”

Tor asks that people contact their U.S. senators and use the hashtag #SMHAct in related tweets as a sign of support.

“People listen to the Tor community on issues of anonymity technology. But the threat to anonymity can be just as destructive when it comes because of a small rule change—a bureaucratic sleight of hand—as when it comes through a attack on our software by a state intelligence agency,” the Tor Project said. “As Tor users, our threat model includes both, so our response as a community must also include both.”

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