Police not required to publicly disclose how they monitor social media accounts in investigations

In the same week that news has broken about how Amazon is assisting police departments with facial recognition technology, here is a decision from a Pennsylvania court that held police do not have to turn over details to the public about how they monitor social media accounts in investigations.

The ACLU sought a copy under Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law of the policies and procedures of the Pennsylvania State Police (PSP) for personnel when using social media monitoring software. The PSP produced a redacted copy, and after the ACLU challenged the redaction, the state’s Office of Open Records ordered the full document be provided. The PSP sought review in state court, and that court reversed the Office of Open Records order. The court found that disclosure of the record would be reasonably likely to threaten public safety or a public protection activity.

The court found in particular that disclosure would: (i) allow individuals to know when the PSP can monitor their activities using “open sources” and allow them to conceal their activities; (ii) expose the specific investigative method used; (iii) provide criminals with tactics the PSP uses when conducting undercover investigations; (iv) reveal how the PSP conducts its investigations; and (v) provide insight into how the PSP conducts an investigation and what sources and methods it would use. Additionally, the court credited the PSP’s affidavit which explained that disclosure would jeopardize the PSP’s ability to hire suitable candidates – troopers in particular – because disclosure would reveal the specific information that may be reviewed as part of a background check to determine whether candidates are suitable for employment.

Pennsylvania State Police v. American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, 2018 WL 2272597 (Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, May 18, 2018)

About the Author: Evan Brown is a Chicago technology and intellectual property attorney. Call Evan at (630) 362-7237, send email to ebrown [at] internetcases.com, or follow him on Twitter @internetcases. Read Evan’s other blog, UDRP Tracker, for information about domain name disputes.

Seventh Circuit sides with Backpage in free speech suit against sheriff

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Backpage is an infamous classified ads website that provides an online forum for users to post ads relating to adult services. The sheriff of Cook County, Illinois (i.e. Chicago) sent letters to the major credit card companies urging them to prohibit users from using the companies’ services to purchase Backpage ads (whether those ads were legal or not). Backpage sued the sheriff, arguing the communications with the credit card companies were a free speech violation.

The lower court denied Backpage’s motion for preliminary injunction. Backpage sought review with the Seventh Circuit. On appeal, the court reversed and remanded.

The appellate court held that while the sheriff has a First Amendment right to express his views about Backpage, a public official who tries to shut down an avenue of expression of ideas and opinions through “actual or threatened imposition of government power or sanction” is violating the First Amendment.

Judge Posner, writing for the court, mentioned the sheriff’s past failure to shut down Craigslist’s adult section through litigation (See Dart v. Craigslist, Inc. 665 F.Supp.2d 961 (N.D.Ill.2009)):

The suit against Craigslist having failed, the sheriff decided to proceed against Backpage not by litigation but instead by suffocation, depriving the company of ad revenues by scaring off its payments-service providers. The analogy is to killing a person by cutting off his oxygen supply rather than by shooting him. Still, if all the sheriff were doing to crush Backpage was done in his capacity as a private citizen rather than as a government official (and a powerful government official at that), he would be within his rights. But he is using the power of his office to threaten legal sanctions against the credit-card companies for facilitating future speech, and by doing so he is violating the First Amendment unless there is no constitutionally protected speech in the ads on Backpage’s website—and no one is claiming that.

The court went on to find that the sheriff’s communications made the credit card companies “victims of government coercion,” in that the letters threatened Backpage with criminal culpability when, à la Dart v. Craigslist and 47 U.S.C. 230, it was unclear whether Backpage was in violation of the law for providing the forum for the ads.

Backpage.com, LLC v. Dart, — F.3d —, 2015 WL 7717221 (7th Cir. Nov. 30, 2015)

Evan Brown is a Chicago attorney advising enterprises on important aspects of technology law, including software development, technology and content licensing, and general privacy issues.

Facebook hacking victim’s CFAA and SCA claims not barred by statutes of limitation

Knowledge that email account had been hacked did not start the statutes of limitation clock ticking for Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and Stored Communications Act claims based on alleged related hacking of Facebook account occurring several months later.

Plaintiff sued her ex-boyfriend in federal court for allegedly accessing her Facebook and Aol email accounts. She brought claims under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, 18 U.S.C. § 1030 (“CFAA”), and the Stored Communications Act, 18 U.S.C. § 2701, et seq. (“SCA”).

Both the CFAA and the SCA have two-year statutes of limitation. Defendant moved to dismiss, arguing that the limitation periods had expired.

The district court granted the motion to dismiss, but plaintiff sought review with the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. On appeal, the court affirmed the dismissal as to the email account, but reversed and remanded as to the Facebook account.

In August 2011, plaintiff discovered that someone had altered her Aol email account password. Later that month someone used her email account to send lewd and derogatory sexually-themed messages about her to people in her contact list. A few months later, similar things happened with her Facebook account — she discovered she could not log in in February 2012, and in March 2012 someone publicly posted sexually-themed messages using her account. She figured out it was her (now married) ex-boyfriend and filed suit.

The district court dismissed the claims because it found plaintiff first discovered facts giving rise to the claims in August 2011, but did not file suit until more than two years later, in January 2014. The Court of Appeals agreed with the district court as to the email account. She had enough facts in 2011 to know her Aol account had been compromised, and waited too long to file suit over that. But that was not the case with the Facebook account. The district court had concluded plaintiff knew in 2011 that her “computer” had been compromised. The Court of Appeals observed that the lower court failed to properly recognize the nuance concerning which computer systems were being accessed without authorization. Unauthorized access to the Facebook server gave rise to the claims relating to the Facebook account. The 2011 knowledge about her email being hacked did not bear on whether she knew her Facebook account would be compromised. The court observed:

We take judicial notice of the fact that it is not uncommon for one person to hold several or many Internet accounts, possibly with several or many different usernames and passwords, less than all of which may be compromised at any one time. At least on the facts as alleged by the plaintiff, it does not follow from the fact that the plaintiff discovered that one such account — AOL e-mail — had been compromised that she thereby had a reasonable opportunity to discover, or should be expected to have discovered, that another of her accounts — Facebook — might similarly have become compromised.

The decision gives us an opportunity to think about how users’ interests in having their data kept secure from third party access attaches to devices and systems that may be quite remote from where the user is located. The typical victim of a hack or data breach these days is not going to be the owner of the server that is compromised. Instead, the incident will typically involve the compromising of a system somewhere else that is hosting the user’s information or communications. This decision from the Second Circuit recognizes that reality, and contributes to the reasonable opportunity for redress in those situations.

Sewell v. Bernardin, — F.3d —, 2015 WL 4619519 (2nd Cir. August 4, 2015)

Evan Brown is an attorney in Chicago helping clients manage issues involving technology and new media.

Facebook wins against alleged advertising fraudster

Defendant set up more than 70 bogus Facebook accounts and impersonated online advertising companies (including by sending Facebook falsified bank records) to obtain an advertising credit line from Facebook. He ran more than $340,000 worth of ads for which he never paid. Facebook sued, among other things, for breach of contract, fraud, and violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA). Despite the court giving defendant several opportunities to be heard, defendant failed to answer the claims and the court entered a default.

The court found that Facebook had successfully pled a CFAA claim. After Facebook implemented technological measures to block defendant’s access, and after it sent him two cease-and-desist letters, defendant continued to intentionally access Facebook’s “computers and servers to obtain account credentials, Facebook credit lines, Facebook ads, and other information.” The court entered an injunction against defendant accessing or using any Facebook website or service in the future, and set the matter over for Facebook to prove up its $340,000 in damages. It also notified the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Facebook, Inc. v. Grunin, 2015 WL 124781 (N.D. Cal. January 8, 2015)

Computer Fraud and Abuse Act claim dismissed where plaintiff failed to adequately plead loss or damage

Cost of investigating scope of information loss was not a “damage assessment” as contemplated by the CFAA.

BrokenlaptopPlaintiff sued defendant (a former employee) under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (“CFAA”) alleging that defendant intentionally and without authorization accessed plaintiff’s computers, intranet, and email system and sent plaintiff’s confidential customer information to his personal email account. Defendant allegedly used this information when he went to work for a competitor. Plaintiff also alleged that defendant attempted to conceal his actions by deleting the outgoing messages from the work email account.

Defendant moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim. The court granted the motion as to the CFAA claim.

The court found that plaintiff did not (and could not) claim defendant’s conduct caused “damage” within the meaning of the CFAA, because plaintiff did not allege any data were lost or impaired.

On the question of “loss” under the CFAA, the court found that plaintiff failed to allege any facts connecting its purported loss to an interruption of service, loss of data, or even a suspected loss of service or data. Although plaintiff attributed certain losses to “damage assessment and mitigation,” the court found it clear from the complaint that plaintiff’s “damage assessment” efforts were aimed at determining the scope of information defendant emailed to himself and disclosed to his new employer. Plaintiff did not allege it ever lost access to any of the information contained in defendant’s emails, notwithstanding defendant’s attempt to conceal his conduct by deleting the emails.

The court observed:

To be sure, assessing the extent of information illegally copied by an employee is a prudent business decision. But the cost of such an investigation is not “reasonably incurred in responding to an alleged CFAA offense,” because the disclosure of trade secrets, unlike destruction of data, is not a CFAA offense.

Accordingly, in this situation, the costs of investigating defendant’s conduct were not “losses” compensable under the CFAA.

SBS Worldwide, Inc. v. Potts, 2014 WL 499001 (N.D.Ill. February 7, 2014)

Using new employer’s credentials to copy former employer’s technology did not violate Computer Fraud and Abuse Act

This case arose from some rather complex but interesting facts:

8e19fbd8a556c7b63610c1cfd7782f10Defendant resigned from his job with an IT consulting firm. One of the firm’s customers hired defendant as an employee. Before the customer/new employer terminated the agreement with the IT consulting firm/former employer, defendant used the customer/new employer’s credentials to access and copy some scripts from the system. (Having the new employee and the scripts eliminated the need to have the consulting firm retained.) The firm/former employer sued under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Defendants (the customer and its new employee) moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim. The court granted the motion.

It held that the complaint failed to allege “unauthorized access” within the Ninth Circuit’s interpretation of the CFAA.

The court looked to the Ninth Circuit’s holding in LVRC Holdings LLC v. Brekka, 581 F.3d 1127 (9th Cir. 2009), which provides that to access a protected computer “without authorization” is to do so “without any permission at all,” and that to “exceed authorized access” is to “access information on the computer that the person is not entitled to access.” And it looked to the more recent case of U.S. v. Nosal, 676 F.3d 854, 863 (9th Cir. 2012), which teaches that an individual does not “exceed authorized access” simply by misusing information that he or she was entitled to view for some other purpose. Under Nosal, the CFAA regulates access to data, not its use by those entitled to access it.

In this case, the court found that the complaint did not allege that defendants were unauthorized to access the scripts in question. In fact, the Statement of Work that the court reviewed specifically granted defendant’s employer and its representatives (including defendant) “sudo access” to “non-shell root commands” that included the scripts at issue.

Plaintiff argued that the access was unauthorized because it had repeatedly refused to grant defendant or his employer the authority to write or edit those scripts. But the court found that argument to address the misuse of the scripts, not unauthorized access. Under Nosal this conduct did not run afoul of the CFAA. So because the complaint failed to allege that defendant and his new employer had no access rights to the scripts, and because the documents upon which plaintiff relied revealed that defendants had certain access rights, the court dismissed the CFAA claim.

Enki Corporation v. Freedman, 2014 WL 261798 (N.D.Cal. January 23, 2014)

Hunter Moore arrest reveals a certain schizophrenia about the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act

The feds arrested Hunter Moore and an alleged co-conspirator on Thursday for hacking into email accounts to get nude photos Moore published on isanyoneup.com. At the heart of the prosecution is the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, the federal statute that makes it a crime (and in some circumstances, gives rise to civil liability) for accessing a computer without authorization.

Few will come to these guys’ defense in this situation. Moore’s conduct in publishing and promoting isanyoneup.com was reprobate, and if the allegations in this criminal action prove true, that backend nefariousness will simply multiply the reasons why Moore was known as the most hated man on the internet. And because of this disdain for Moore’s conduct, most of us are happy to see the CFAA used aggressively against him.

But that’s the same statute many blame for crushing Aaron Swartz. To the extent a reasonable person may feel ill-will against Hunter Moore, he or she may feel sympathy, indeed compassion, for Aaron Swartz having had the CFAA book thrown at him. Against Moore there’s a sense of justice, against Swartz, a palpable injustice.

Isn’t it a bit mysterious how the same conduct — granted, for way different purposes and under different circumstances — can elicit such contrasting emotions?

Can the government violate the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act?

Short answer: Pretty much no.

The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act is found at 18 U.S.C. 1030. Subpart (f) reads as follows:

This section [i.e., the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act] does not prohibit any lawfully authorized investigative, protective, or intelligence activity of a law enforcement agency of the United States, a State, or a political subdivision of a State, or of an intelligence agency of the United States.

The recent controversy over whether the FBI and/or the NSA is behind the recent Tor anonymity compromising brings this question up. So we can cut right to the question of whether that conduct is outside this exception to the CFAA, in that it is not a “lawfully authorized” law enforcement activity. Given the nuance and complexity of these issues, we should not expect easy answers.

Court allows expedited discovery to identify website hijackers

Indigital Solutions, LLC v. Mohammed, 2012 WL 5825824 (S.D.Tex. November 15, 2012)

Plaintiffs alleged that one or more unknown defendants used malware to gain access to plaintiffs’ email account, web hosting account and domain registration account. From a message in plaintiffs’ email account, the defendants acquired an image of one of the plaintiff’s signature, which defendants used to forge a domain name transfer agreement. Plaintiffs sued under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and other theories. They sought leave to take expedited discovery to learn the identity of the unknown defendants. The court granted the motion.

The court found that plaintiffs had made a prima facie showing of harm by setting forth a valid claim under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. The discovery request was specific, in that they sought third party subpoenas to specified recipients seeking particular information. All alternative means of discovering the defendants had been exhausted, and the case could not move forward without the information. And the court found no privacy interest on the part of the defendants to be at stake, especially given the evidence that the defendants were not U.S. citizens, thus not subject to any First Amendment interest in anonymity.

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