The U.S. Supreme Court approved a new rule Thursday allowing federal judges to issue warrants that target computers outside their jurisdiction, setting the stage for a major expansion of surveillance and hacking powers by federal law-enforcement agencies.
Chief Justice John Roberts submitted the rule to Congress on behalf of the Court as part of the justices’ annual package of changes to the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. The rules form the basis of every federal prosecution in the United States.
Under Rule 41’s current incarnation, federal magistrate judges can typically only authorize searches and seizures within their own jurisdiction. Only in a handful of circumstances can judges approve a warrant that reaches beyond their territory—if, for example, they allow federal agents to use a tracking device that could move through multiple judicial districts.
The amendments, drafted by a panel of federal judges at the Justice Department’s request, add another exception. It would allow a magistrate judge to issue a warrant to hack into and seize data stored on a computer, even if that computer’s actual location “has been concealed through technical means.”
In other words, under the new rule, a judge in California could approve a warrant allowing federal agents to lawfully hack into a computer without knowing its true location, whether it be New York, Budapest, or one of Jupiter’s moons.