The FBI has the authority right now to access privately owned computers without their owners’ knowledge or consent, and to delete software. It’s part of a government effort to contain the continuing attacks on corporate networks running Microsoft Exchange software, and it’s an unprecedented intrusion that’s raising legal questions about just how far the government can go.
The software the FBI is deleting is malicious code installed by hackers to take control of a victim’s computer. Hackers have used the code to access vast amounts of private email messages and to launch ransomware attacks. The authority the Justice Department relied on and the way the FBI carried out the operation set important precedents. They also raise questions about the power of courts to regulate cybersecurity without the consent of the owners of the targeted computers.
Public-private cooperation is critical for managing the wide range of cyber threats facing the U.S. But it poses challenges, including determining how far the government can go in the name of national security. It’s also important for Congress and the courts to oversee this balancing act.