The U.S. forced tech companies to spy on Russian hacker using legal loophole

The All Writs Act of 1789 allowed the government to receive weekly reports from at least two major tourist information databases.

Back view of young man with headset watching surveillance footage and map on computers and speaking ...

New legal documents have revealed the United States government’s alarming utilization of an obscure law that, while over 200-years-old, can still force companies specializing in travel logistics data to provide law enforcement with certain individuals’ global movements. According to information first uncovered by Forbes, U.S. officials were legally able to compel both the stateside-based Sabre and the U.K.’s Travelport into tracking the whereabouts of a wanted Russian hacker responsible for orchestrating the 2015 theft of $20 million in credit card funds.

For months, Sabre and Travelport were required to provide U.S. Secret Service officials with weekly reports regarding the movements of Aleksei Burkov that culminated in his apprehension by Israeli authorities while on vacation in the country later that year. Although it only took a few months to arrest Burkov, Forbes notes that the legal order could have lasted at least another two years, if necessary.

All writs, all writs, all writs — In this particular case, the government’s vast reach is directly attributed to something called the All Writs Act of 1789, which hypothetically allows law enforcement to enlist third parties not directly involved in a case for “non-burdensome” assistance. The last time this loophole made headlines was around the same time as the 2015 Burkov investigation when the FBI unsuccessfully attempted to force Apple into unlocking the San Bernadino mass shooter’s iPhone.

The FBI tried to make Apple unlock the 2015 San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone using the same loophole.CHRIS TUITE/AFP/Getty Images

Privacy advocates unsurprisingly have a lot of issues with the All Writs Act, especially the fact that these orders, unlike search warrants and wiretaps, are often filed under seal — meaning that there’s really no telling just how often it is being used.

It’s currently unclear just how many similar cases intelligence and law enforcement agencies are pursuing, and if they only pertain to foreign nationals... but c’mon. We can use our imaginations here.