Last week, a Texas judge denied a warrant request from the FBI that would have enabled federal gumshoes to snoop through his webcam, raising a question: Should the FBI be allowed to spy on you through your webcam?
An Ars Technica report noted that the practice requested by the bureau was similar to surveillance methods used by an online community called Ratters.
Named after the surveillance software called Remote Access Tools (RAT), Ratters trade secrets on how to hack into and take over webcams on personal computers.
They also trade photos of their targets, often unsuspecting women caught undressing, taken by the compromised webcams.
Texas Judge Stephen Smith denied the FBI request because the methods used would not only give the FBI access to the camera, but it would give them full control of the suspect’s computer, allowing them to access other files.
The judge also did not think that the bureau had provided him with enough information. Smith said he was not sure whether he even had the authority to permit a search that could occur outside of his district. All the FBI had was an email address.
“We continue to study the court’s opinion and have no further comment at this time,” a Justice Department spokesperson told The Daily Caller regarding Smith’s decision.
The invasive power that computer hacking enables makes it “really important that the courts and Congress be able to perform effective oversight over its use,” Chris Soghoian, principal technologist and senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union, told The Daily Caller.
“Our view is that hacking is such an invasive power, that judges really need to be kept in the loop — not just to authorize the sort of higher level concept of hacking, but to authorize how they’re going to do it too,” said Soghoian.
“If the FBI is going to pretend to be a U.S. company, the judge should be told; if the FBI is going to release a virus so it can spread from one computer to the next, the judge should be told because of the potential that it could spread to the computers of innocent people,” he said.
“If they’re going to leave a backdoor so that they can get access a week or a month or a year later, the judge should be told and should have to authorize that,” he said.
“Judges have security clearances,” said Soghoian. “The government can trust the judge; he’s not going to go off and blab to the press or tell the target,” he said.