Category Archives: Computer Crime

Class action against Path faces uphill climb

Hernandez v. Path, Inc., 2012 WL 5194120 (N.D.Cal. October 19, 2012)

uphill path

Earlier this year plaintiff filed a class action lawsuit against photo app provider Path, alleging ten claims relating to Path’s alleged surreptitious collecting of mobile device address books and installation of tracking software. Path moved to dismiss the lawsuit for lack of standing and for failure to state a claim. The court held that plaintiff had standing to pursue the case, but dismissed some of the claims.

Standing

The court found that alleged depletion of “two to three seconds of battery capacity” was de minimus and thus not sufficient to support the injury-in-fact plaintiff was required to show. Citing to the fairly recent case of Krottner v. Starbucks, the court found that the hypothetical threat of future harm due to a security risk to plaintiff’s personal information was insufficient to confer standing. The only basis on which the court found there to be a sufficient claim of injury to support standing was the (hard to believe) claim by plaintiff that he would have to spend $12,500 to pay a professional to remove the Path app and related data from his phone.

The Dismissed Claims

The court dismissed for failure to state a claim (with leave to amend) plaintiff’s claims under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), Stored Communications Act (SCA), California wiretapping statute, state common law privacy, conversion and trespass.

ECPA and California Wiretapping Statute Claim. The court dismissed the ECPA and California Wiretapping Statute claims, finding that the complaint did not allege that Path intercepted any communication contemporaneous with its transmission. At best (from plaintiff’s perspective), it appears that Path gathered information on social networking sites after it was transmitted. And the uploading of the address books does not appear to have qualified as a communication under these statutes.

SCA Claim. The SCA claim failed “on multiple fronts.” Plaintiff was not a provider of electronic communication services and his iPhone was not a facility through which such service was provided. So Path’s alleged access did not come within the prohibition of the SCA. Moreover, the address books were not communications to which the SCA applied, because they were not in “electronic storage” as defined by the SCA, namely, being in temporary, intermediate storage incidental to their electronic transmission. (We see a similar issue in the recent Jennings case from South Carolina.)

State Common Law Privacy. This claim would have required plaintiff to show (1) public disclosure (2) of private facts (3) which would be offensive and objectionable to the reasonable person and (4) which is not of legitimate public concern. The court found there was no public disclosure, only Path’s storage of data on its servers.

Conversion. Under California law, to be successful on a claim of conversion, plaintiff would have had to plead and prove “ownership or right to possession of property, wrongful disposition of the property right and damages.” The court dismissed this claim because plaintiff pled only that Path copied the data, not dispossessing him of it. (As an aside, it’s this very point that underscores my common admonition to copyright maximalists that infringement is not “theft,” because theft involves dispossession. End of digression.)

Trespass. The California common law action of trespass in the computer context requires a plaintiff to show that (1) defendant intentionally and without authorization interfered with plaintiff’s possessory interest in a computer system; and (2) defendant’s unauthorized use proximately resulted in damage to plaintiff. The tort “does not encompass … an electronic communication that neither damages the recipient computer system nor impairs its functioning.” Intel v. Hamidi, 30 Cal.4th 1342 (Cal. 2003). In this case, plaintiff did not allege that the functioning of his mobile device was significantly impaired to the degree that would enable him to plead the elements of a trespass. The court found that any depletion of his mobile device’s finite resources was a de minimis injury. (See the standing analysis above.)

The Remaining Claims

The claims for violations of the California Computer Crime Law, Californa’s Unfair Competition Law (Section 17200), negligence and unjust enrichment remain in the case.

California Computer Crime Law. Based on the limited briefing, the court could not conclude as a matter of law whether Path’s alleged conduct fell outside this statute. The question remains whether providing the app which plaintiff voluntarily downloaded and installed on his iPhone provided undisclosed software code that surreptitiously transferred plaintiff’s data.

Californa’s Unfair Competition Law. This statute prohibits “any unlawful, unfair or fraudulent business act or practice.” The court found that the conduct alleged in the complaint, if true, constituted an unlawful or unfair act or practice within the meaning of the statute. It found that plaintiff had failed to allege any fraudulent practice, but since plaintiff met the first two prongs (unlawfulness and unfairness), the claim survived.

Negligence. Plaintiff alleged that Path owed a duty to plaintiff to protect his personal information and data property and take reasonable steps to protect him from the wrongful taking of such information and the wrongful invasion of privacy. Path allegedly breached this duty by, among other things, accessing and uploading data from plaintiff’s phone, storing that data in an unsecure manner, and transmitting the data to third parties. Path relied on In re iPhone Application Litigation to argue it had no duty to plaintiff. In that decision, Judge Koh held that plaintiffs had not yet adequately pled or identified a legal duty on the part of Apple to protect users’ personal information from third-party app developers. This case was different because Path was a third party developer. Despite the existence of a duty, plaintiff’s claims of damages (here’s the $12,500 repair bill issue again) will likely face substantial challenges as the case progresses.

Unjust Enrichment. Path argued that unjust enrichment was not a cause of action under California law. The court cited to cases suggesting that California law does indeed recognize such a claim and kept in in this case.

Photo credit Flickr user stormwarning under this Creative Commons license.

No Computer Fraud and Abuse Act violation for taking over former employee’s LinkedIn account

Eagle v. Morgan, 2012 WL 4739436 (E.D.Pa. October 4, 2012)

After plaintiff was fired as an executive, her former employer (using the password known by another employee) took over plaintiff’s LinkedIn account. It kept all of plaintiff’s contacts and recommendations but switched out plaintiff’s name and photo with those of the new CEO.

LinkedIn identity writ large

Plaintiff sued in federal court under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, the Lanham Act, and a slew of state law claims including identity theft, conversion and tortious interference. The former employer moved for summary judgment on the CFAA and Lanham Act claims. The court granted the motion, but continued to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the state law claims.

On the CFAA claim, the court found that plaintiff failed to show how the taking over over her account gave rise to a cognizable loss under the CFAA. The kinds of losses she tried to prove, e.g., lost future business opportunities and professional reputation, did not pertain to any impairment or damage to a computer or computer system. Moreover, the court found, plaintiff failed to specify or quantify the damages she alleged.

As for the Lanham Act claim, the court found that there was no likelihood of confusion. It noted that “anyone who navigated to [plaintiff’s] LinkedIn account would be met with [the new CEO’s] name, photograph and new position.” Accordingly, there was no effort to “pass off” the new CEO as plaintiff or to otherwise suggest an endorsement or affiliation.

Though it dismissed all the federal claims, the court kept the pending state law claims. The matter had been before the court for over a year, the judge was familiar with the facts and the parties, and dismissing it so soon before trial would not have been fair.

Other coverage by Venkat.

Photo credit: Flickr user smi23le under this Creative Commons license.

Facebook caused wife to stab her husband

U.S. v. Mask, 2012 WL 3562034 (N.M.Ct.Crim.App., August 14, 2012)

No doubt Facebook use can be an enemy to marriage — see, for example, this recent article about how Facebook was named in a third of divorce filings in 2011. A recent case from the military courts shows how using Facebook can put a spouse’s very life in peril.

She is yelling and is very angry.

Defendant wife became angry when she accessed her husband’s Facebook account. An argument ensued between defendant and her husband about the content of husband’s Facebook page, which escalated and turned violent. The two struggled, with defendant yanking the modem out of the wall and striking husband. She continued to hit him, causing him to back into the kitchen, where defendant grabbed a knife and stabbed husband in the abdomen, saying, “that’s what you get, mother fucker.”

Husband survived, and wife was tried and convicted of attempted manslaughter. She sought review with the Navy–Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals. On appeal the court affirmed the conviction and five year sentence. It held the evidence at trial was sufficient to support the verdict, and that defendant’s Fifth Amendment rights had not been violated.

Photo courtesy Flickr user normalityrelief under this Creative Commons license.

No Fourth Amendment violation when government looked at Facebook profile using friend’s account

U.S. v. Meregildon, — F.Supp.2d —, 2012 WL 3264501 (S.D.N.Y. August 10, 2012)

The government suspected defendant was involved in illegal gang activity and secured the assistance of a cooperating witness who was a Facebook friend of defendant. Viewing defendant’s profile using the friend’s account, the government gathered evidence of probable cause (discussion of past violence, threats, and gang loyalty maintenance) which it used to swear out a search warrant.

What you do on Facebook is almost guaranteed to come back and bite you in the ass.

Defendant argued that the means by which the government obtained the probable cause evidence – by viewing content protected by defendant’s Facebook privacy settings – violated defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights. The court denied defendant’s motion to suppress.

It held that where Facebook privacy settings allowed viewership of postings by friends, the Government could access them through a friend/cooperating witness without violating the Fourth Amendment. The court compared the scenario to how a person loses his legitimate expectation of privacy when the government records a phone call with the consent of a cooperating witness who participates in the call. It held that defendant’s legitimate expectation of privacy ended when he disseminated posts to his Facebook friends because those friends were then free to use the information however they wanted, including sharing it with the government.

Photo credit: Flickr user Poster Boy NYC under this Creative Commons license.

Did a Facebook breakup cause a murder?

According to this news report, a man in Martinsville, Indiana allegedly shot the mother of his 14-month-old daughter after the woman broke up with him through Facebook. Though one should not jump to concluding that Facebook caused this murder, we are left to consider whether the nature of social media communications contributed to the alleged killer’s motivation.

public breakup

Breaking up is supposed to be a private event. Though we do not know the precise means the woman used to communicate the breakup (was it a private message or an IM, or was it more public like a status update or wall post?), one cannot help but notice the incongruity of using a social media platform to communicate a sensitive matter. Equally intriguing as the breakup is the man’s alleged apology in advance that he posted to Facebook before the murder.

Social media, just like any technology, gives us choices. Stories like this show how, in certain circumstances, human nature may not always be up to the task of making the right decisions when that process is affected by a novel context like the seemingly public context of Facebook.

Photo courtesy Flickr user Unlisted Sightings under this license.

Alleged voyeur boss cannot pursue Computer Fraud and Abuse Act claim

Bashaw v. Johnson, 2012 WL 1623483 (D.Kan. May 9, 2012)

Some employees filed suit after they learned that their boss — who required them to wear skirts to work — allegedly installed the Cam-u-flage video surveillance app on his iPhone and iPad to surreptitiously capture upskirt shots of plaintiffs at work.

The boss filed a counterclaim under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), claiming that plaintiffs deleted data from his iDevices without authorization. Plaintiffs moved to dismiss this counterclaim. The court granted the motion.

The court held that the boss failed to allege the nature of his alleged damages within the meaning of the CFAA, and that he failed to sufficiently allege a qualified loss as defined by the statute.

As for damage, the court found that the mere allegation that data had been erased, without identifying which data, did not meet the plausibility requirement to survive a motion to dismiss. (Hmm. I wonder what data the plaintiff-employees would have wanted to delete?)

On the question of loss, the employer alleged that such calculation “would exceed” the CFAA threshold of $5,000. But he did not allege that he actually incurred losses in that amount. He did not mention any investigative or response costs, nor did he allege any lost revenues or other losses due to an interruption in service.

Photo credit: Magic Madzik

Video: This Week in Law Episode 150

Had a great time hosting This Week in Law Episode 150, which we recorded on February 24. (Thanks to Denise Howell for handing over the hosting reins while she was off for the week.) It was a really fun conversation with three very smart panelists — Mike Godwin, Greg Sergienko and Jonathan Frieden. We talked about copyright and free speech, encryption and the Fifth Amendment, and the state of internet privacy.

If you’re not a regular listener or viewer of This Week in Law, I hope you’ll add it to your media diet. I’m on just about every week (sometimes I’m even referred to as a co-host of the show). We record Fridays at 1pm Central (that’s 11am Pacific, 2pm Eastern). The live stream is at http://live.twit.tv and the page with all the past episodes and various subscription options is http://twit.tv/twil.

No restraining order against uncle posting family photos on Facebook

Court refuses to consider common law invasion of privacy tort to support restraining order under Minnesota statute.

Olson v. LaBrie, 2012 WL 426585 (Minn. App. February 13, 2012)

Appellant sought a restraining order against his uncle, saying that his uncle engaged in harassment by posting family photos of appellant (including one of him in front of a Christmas tree) and mean commentary on Facebook. The trial court denied the restraining order. Appellant sought review with the state appellate court. On appeal, the court affirmed the denial of the restraining order.

It found that the photos and the commentary were mean and disrespectful, but that they could not form the basis for harassment. The court held that whether harassment occurred depended only on a reading of the statute (which provides, among other things, that a restraining order is appropriate to guard against “substantial adverse effects” on the privacy of another). It was not appropriate, the court held, to look to tort law on privacy to determine whether the statute called for a restraining order.

Are nonpirate Megaupload users entitled to compensation from the government?

If I left my coat in a taxi that was later impounded because, unknown to me, the driver was transporting heroin in the trunk, would I be left out in the cold?

People who used Megaupload to lawfully store and transfer files are rightfully upset that their stuff is unavailable after last week’s raid. Some groups in other countries say they are going to sue the U.S. government. Would a lawsuit like that get anywhere in a U.S. court?

The Fifth Amendment — best known for its privilege against self-incrimination — says that “private property [shall not] be taken for public use, without just compensation”. (You can impress your legally-trained friends at parties by confidently and casually referring to the Takings Clause.) Does the Takings Clause give innocent Megaupload users a right to be paid the value of the files they are being deprived of while the feds use the servers on which those files are stored to prove their case against Kim Dotcom and company?

Back in 2008, Ilya Somin and Orin Kerr had a conversation on the Volokh Conspiracy discussing this question of whether the Fifth Amendment protects innocent third parties who lose property in a criminal investigation. If you read that commentary you will see that a case over the Megaupload takedown might be tough for a number of esoteric reasons, not the least of which is Supreme Court precedent.

There are some face-value problems with a case like this as well. Has the government taken the property for a “public use”? One could argue that the reason the servers (including the innocent content) were seized was for the so-called public good of going after piracy. But then the innocent content is not being “used” in connection with the prosecution — it just happens to be there.

I do not pretend to know the answers to this inquiry, and I’m relying on sharper Constitutional minds than mine to leave some good comments. (If you know Ilya Somin or Orin Kerr, send them a link to this post!) All I know is that it does not seem fair that users of the cloud should so easily be deprived in the name of law enforcement.

 

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