U.S. judges will be able to issue search warrants giving law enforcement agents the power to access computers in any jurisdiction, potentially even overseas, under a controversial rule change likely to be approved by the Supreme Court by May 1.
Magistrate judges can normally only order searches within the jurisdiction of their court, which is typically limited to a few counties.
The U.S. Justice Department, which is pushing for the rule change, has described it as a procedural change needed to modernize the criminal code for the digital age, and has said it would not permit searches or seizures that are not already legal.
Google, owned by Alphabet Inc, and civil liberties groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Access Now, contend the change would vastly expand the ability of the FBI to hack into computer networks. They say it could run afoul of the U.S. Constitution’s protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.
Should the Supreme Court approve the change, it will take effect later this year unless both chambers of Congress act to reject or amend it, a move seen as unlikely given gridlock in the legislature ahead of the U.S. presidential election.
The challenge to the change originally came from federal courts in Virginia and Oklahoma that said the FBI’s use of a warrant to deploy a “network investigative technique” on computers outside the geographic bounds of the issuing judge’s district was invalid.
Though it has been several years in the making, the effort to widen warrant jurisdiction has not garnered the level of attention of other recent clashes over government access to digital information, such as the FBI’s standoff with Apple over encryption.
Congress would have until December 1 to reject or amend a change to Rule 41.