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Since the advent of the Internet, for better or for worse, government institutions have been struggling to keep up with ever-changing technology. One topic that is of particular importance for all Internet users is the security of their private information – email addresses, passwords, financial data, etc. There have been many instances in which savvy Internet users (i.e., hackers) have compromised private databases to obtain private information. Dealing with this issue has attracted legislation from every state in the union, but striking the correct balance between ensuring that the Internet an open community on the one hand and keeping it secure for users on the other has proven to be a formidable challenge.
One recent criminal case from New Jersey exemplifies the misunderstanding between legislatures and the ever-evolving computer and Internet technologies. A New Jersey jury convicted a member of a so-called “legitimate security organization” for violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986 (“CFAA”), a federal law that aims to reduce computer-related crimes. The case involved Andrew Auernheimer, a member of GoatSec, for violating a provision of this law that punishes “access[ing] a computer without auhorizatin or exceed[ing] authorized access . . . from [a] protected computer.” This provision was written long before the proliferation of the Internet, but yet it was used to convict Auerheimer for essentially changing the end of web addresses to obtain thousands of email addresses from AT&T.
Instead of convicting a hacker – a term used loosely when any Internet user can figure out what Auerheimer did to gain access to the email addressses – guilty of violating a law that is relatively archaic, the blame might be better placed on AT&T for having such an insecure method of data storage and retrieval. Following in the footsteps of the Auerheimer decision will likely disincentivize Internet experts from revealing privacy issues for fear of criminal prosecution. At the same time that course of action would not encourage businesses like AT&T to take the initiative to make sure their websites protect customer data adequately. One thing is sure, courts and legislatures across the country will be dealing with this battle for years to come.
- J.P. Urban
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