The dust from the National Surveillance Agency (NSA) espionage scandal hasn't even settled yet and another American agency has rekindled the same debate by trying to acquire similar powers that led to the NSA abusing the privacy of millions around the world.
The news here is that the Justice Department is trying to amend its criminal rules to allow the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to obtain warrants for hacking into a suspect computer whose physical location has yet to be ascertained. Moreover, when facing a network of botnets, the proposed amendment would enable FBI agents to use a single judicial sanction for hacking into thousands of computers.
As expected, the proposal initiated a massive public debate online and got criticized by privacy proponents, who fear that the agency might not be able to keep its officers from abusing this power and intruding on netizens' digital lives. It's this opposition that might stop this proposal from ever becoming a part of the law.
However, while the NSA's controversial tactics were surely uncalled-for, the reason behind the FBI trying to extend its powers makes sense.
“Criminals are increasingly using sophisticated technologies that pose technical challenges to law enforcement, and remote searches of computers are often essential to the successful investigation of botnets and crimes involving Internet technologies,” said Mythili Raman, the acting Assistant Attorney General for the United States Department of Justice's Criminal Division.
The people behind the proposal have clarified that their motive is not to simply enhance the bureau's powers, but it is actually a much-needed step to bring the law in line with the ever evolving cyber world. Hackers online are able to mount attacks through large groups of infected computers that are scattered at great distances so as to limit the authorities' jurisdiction. While judges do all they can to facilitate prosecutors, their hands are tied when attacks originate from multiple jurisdictions.
Obtaining warrants in all districts not only wastes time and is practically impossible, but the exercise also gives hackers the time to change up. This is why the bad guys end up winning most cyber battles. What's more frightening is that the internet's evil forces are getting more organized and powerful – the emergence of Anonymous being just one such example. It's said that 2013 was the most important year as far as cyber warfare was concerned with Operation Ababil and Spamhaus Attack being the most high profile cybercrimes.
According to various estimates, the US alone suffers financial losses of up to $100 billion each year due to cyber-attacks. That's almost one percent of the American GDP. With hackers now actively targeting even small-to-midsized business, that number is only going to go up if actions are not taken immediately.
Former CIA director Leon Panetta once famously said: "A cyber-attack perpetrated by nation states or violent extremist groups could be as destructive as the terrorist attack on 9/11. Such a destructive cyber terrorist attack could virtually paralyze the nation."
To avoid a repeat of 9/11, the US government and its allies have worked tirelessly, but it's now time to focus their energies elsewhere before it's too late.
The Justice Department's proposal to equip the FBI with judicial powers that could beat hackers is a step in the right direction. It shouldn't be thwarted just because of the precedent set by the NSA.