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Judge voids warrant feds used to hack child porn suspects

Judge voids warrant feds used to hack child porn suspects
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A federal judge has invalidated a government warrant used to hack a child pornography suspect in a ruling that could have ramifications for a separate fight over whether judges should be able to issue warrants in multiple jurisdictions.

The warrant in question allowed investigators to place malware on Playpen, a website known to contain child porn, and identify users. Using this method, the government reportedly identified thousands of users, leading to numerous cases.

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But civil liberties advocates and legal experts questioned whether the government could use one warrant, authorized in Virginia, to uncover previously unknown people in locations around the country.

Alex Levin, a Massachusetts man and one of the defendants charged with accessing child porn through Playpen, challenged the warrant on these grounds.

The warrant “allowed government agents to conduct a borderless dragnet search with no geographic limitation," wrote Levin’s lawyer, J.W. Carney, in a court filing.

Current law, Carney added, “simply does not permit a magistrate judge in Virginia to authorize the search of the defendant’s computer located in Massachusetts.”

U.S. District Judge William Young agreed on Wednesday, writing that the warrant “was issued without jurisdiction and thus was void.”

“It follows that the resulting search was conducted as though there were no warrant at all,” he added. “Since warrantless searches are presumptively unreasonable, and the good-faith exception is inapplicable, the evidence must be excluded.”

Having to suppress the evidence in Levin’s case will make it considerably more difficult to prosecute him.  

The ruling goes to the center of a contentious debate over what authority judges should have to issue warrants for remote computer searches outside of their jurisdictions.

The FBI has been gradually moving to change the rules so that judges could authorize warrants for electronic searches in multiple locations or even when investigators don’t know the physical location of a device.

But tech companies such as Google, computer scientists and privacy advocates have decried the potential change, which they believe would give the FBI the authority to hack computers with little oversight.

A national court policymaking group already approved the government's request to change the rules. But both the Supreme Court and Congress must eventually sign off on the change, which would go into effect on Dec. 1 if approved.