Should Faking a Name on Facebook Be a Felony?
Imagine that President Obama could order the arrest of anyone who broke a promise on the Internet. So you could be jailed for lying about your age or weight on an Internet dating site. Or you could be sent to federal prison if your boss told you to work but you used the company's computer to check sports scores online. Imagine that Eric Holder's Justice Department urged Congress to raise penalties for violations, making them felonies allowing three years in jail for each broken promise. Fanciful, right?
Think again. Congress is now poised to grant the Obama administration's wishes in the name of "cybersecurity."
The little-known law at issue is called the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. It was enacted in 1986 to punish computer hacking. But Congress has broadened the law every few years, and today it extends far beyond hacking. The law now criminalizes computer use that "exceeds authorized access" to any computer. Today that violation is a misdemeanor, but the Senate Judiciary Committee is set to meet this morning to vote on making it a felony.
Breaching an agreement or ignoring your boss might be bad. But should it be a federal crime just because it involves a computer? If interpreted this way, the law gives computer owners the power to criminalize any computer use they don't like. Imagine the Democratic Party setting up a public website and announcing that no Republicans can visit. Every Republican who checked out the site could be a criminal for exceeding authorized access.
If that sounds far-fetched, consider a few recent cases. In 2009, the Justice Department prosecuted a woman for violating the "terms of service" of the social networking site MySpace.com. The woman had been part of a group that set up a MySpace profile using a fake picture. The feds charged her with conspiracy to violate the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Prosecutors say the woman exceeded authorized access because MySpace required all profile information to be truthful. But people routinely misstate the truth in online profiles, about everything from their age to their name. What happens when each instance is a felony?
Published: 16 September, 2011, 21:55
Logging onto Facebook could become a felony
Reading this article could land you in prison.
The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act has been on the books since the 1980s to allow the feds to go after the culprits of malicious hacks and cybercrimes. An addendum to the act that Congress is expected to take a look at today, however, can cause almost any misuse of a computer to be interpreted as a felony.
The Senate Judiciary Committee will vote on an updated version of the act on Friday that will make it a felony crime to use a computer in a way that “exceeds authorized access.” But what exactly constitutes authorized access?
The wording of the addition creates a slippery slope that could cause nearly anyone to be punished for violating the rules of, well, anyone. "The problem” with the proposed legislation, says Orin Kerr of The Wall Street Journal, “is that a lot of routine computer use can exceed 'authorized access.'"