It's the sort of technology that can infect laptops, activate personal webcams and extract data from cellphones and tablets. Yet according to experts, it is not known how many law enforcement agencies have the software, how many times they've used it and whether or not such actions are constitutional.
"We don't have a secure Internet, and I think we need one," said
The multi-panel conference looked at the history of hacking technology, its current use by police and government groups and the legal implications.
Investigators wanted to install "data extraction software" that would search through all the data stored on a particular computer and activate its webcam so investigators could take a photo of the computer's user.
The problem, Smith said, was that investigators didn't know the identity of the computer's owner and didn't know where the computer was located. Smith turned down the warrant request.
"These obviously raise Fourth Amendment concerns," Donahue said. Often, hacking warrants seek to sift through someone's computer for up to a month, searching for proof of criminal activity.
But Donahue and other panelists said the potential for abuse is high. What if the computer is located at an Internet cafe, a public library or a university? Do you search the activity of every person who used that computer? What if the hacking virus infects other computers in a network?
"These law enforcement techniques are stretching the bounds of statutory language and Congressional oversight," said
"When government is accessing information directly, it is doing it invisibly," Pell said.
There also is some question about whether evidence gathered through law enforcement hacking is always accurate. Panelists said the hacking technology sometimes provides a "back door" for other parties to manipulate the data being extracted, for example.
Such vulnerability is rampant throughout the spectrum of personal digital products, according to
"I have no idea how to defend these devices against outside attack," Blaze said of cellphones.
Soghoian agreed. "Phones are just a disaster," he said.
Meanwhile, politicians and the judiciary are struggling with the problem. As
"It's difficult for me to find out what's going on in another district," he said. "We're basically crying out for authority. Tell us what to do."
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