Tag Archives: cfaa

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

ISP’s alleged throttling of BitTorrent and Skype violates Computer Fraud and Abuse Act

Fink v. Time Warner Cable, 2011 WL 3962607 (S.D.N.Y. September 7, 2011)

Plaintiffs sued Time Warner (the provider of Road Runner High Speed Online internet access), alleging, among other things, that Time Warner’s alleged “throttling” of plaintiffs’ internet communications violated the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, 18 USC 1030 (“CFAA”). Specifically, plaintiffs alleged that without their authorization, Time Warner sent forged reset packets which frustrated plaintiffs’ peer-to-peer communications (e.g., BitTorrent and other P2P mechanisms) as well as their use of Skype.

Time Warner moved to dismiss the CFAA claims. The court granted the motion as to claims that required plaintiffs to  plead “loss” as defined by the statute. As for those claims that required only allegations of “access” and “damage,” the court denied the motion to dismiss and let the case move forward.

Plaintiffs brought three claims under the CFAA, one under each of subparts (A), (B) and (C) of 18 USC 1030(a)(5). This part of the statute provides liability for anyone who:

(A) knowingly causes the transmission of a program, information, code, or command, and as a result of such conduct, intentionally causes damage without authorization, to a protected computer;

(B) intentionally accesses a protected computer without authorization, and as a result of such conduct, recklessly causes damage; or

(C) intentionally accesses a protected computer without authorization, and as a result of such conduct, causes damage and loss.

No CFAA loss

The CFAA defines “loss” as “any reasonable cost to any victim, including the
cost of responding to an offense, conducting a damage assessment, and restoring the data, program, system, or information to its condition prior to the offense, and any revenue lost, cost incurred, or other consequential damages incurred because of interruption of service.”

In this case, plaintiffs alleged that the loss they suffered arose from their payments for high-speed internet services allegedly not received, costs to prevent Time Warner’s throttling practice and the costs of obtaining information elsewhere when they were unable to use their computers for file transfers and VoIP communications. Plaintiffs also pled losses relating to time and effort in assessing “damage” to each computer for which transmissions were interrupted. 

The court found these alleged losses to be outside the scope of those contemplated by the CFAA. Plaintiffs did not allege that they needed to restore data,a program, a system, or information to its condition prior to Time Warner’s conduct. The court held that Plaintiffs had failed to adequately plead this element of a CFAA claim. So it dismissed the claim plaintiffs had brought under 18 USC 1030(a)(5)(C).

“Damage” and “access” adequately pled

Plaintiffs’ failure to adequately plead loss was not the end of the case. Since subparts (A) and (B) of  18 USC 1030(a)(5) do not require one to plead “loss,” but do require pleading “damage” and “access,” the court turned its attention to see if those elements were adequately pled. It found that they were.

The CFAA defines “damage” as “any impairment to the integrity or availability of data, a system, or information.” Plaintiffs alleged that Time Warner impaired their ability to obtain data and utilize their computer systems by knowingly transmitting “reset packets to [their] computers with the intention of impeding or preventing [their] peer-to-peer transmissions” and that damage was caused because the reset packets “compromis[ed] the internal software of [their]computers and impair[ed] their ability to receive and transmit data.” The plaintiffs also alleged that the throttling process prevented data exchange and inhibited certain use of their computers. In addition, plaintiffs identified the specific types of information that had its availability “impeded” and identified a particular program, Skype, that was rendered unusable by the alleged throttling. 

As for “access,” the court looked to the plain meaning, dictionary definition of the word for guidance (since the term is not defined in the CFAA). Plaintiffs had alleged that Time Warner accessed their computers in violation of the statute by knowingly transmitting reset packets to plaintiff’s computers and otherwise accessed their computers to impede data receipt and transmission.” Giving the term “access” a broad meaning, the court found these allegations to satisfy the CFAA requirement.

Lost sales were not “loss” under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act

CustomGuide v. CareerBuilder, LLC, 2011 WL 3809768 (N.D.Ill. August 24, 2011)

Plaintiff and defendant had discussed a licensing arrangement whereby defendant would provide certain of plaintiff’s materials online. The parties never entered into that agreement. But plaintiff claimed that defendant went ahead and accessed the materials stored on plaintiff’s computer system, and thereby caused plaintiff to miss out on certain sales in the business to business marketplace for the materials.

So plaintiff sued, alleging a variety of claims, including a claim under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Defendant moved to dismiss. The court granted the motion.

The CFAA defines a “loss” as “any reasonable cost to any victim, including the cost of responding to an offense, conducting a damage assessment, and restoring the data, program, system, or information to its condition prior to the offense, and any revenue lost, cost incurred, or other consequential damages incurred because of interruption of service.” 18 U.S.C. § 1030(e)(11).

The court looked to the case of Cassetica Software v. Computer Sciences Corp., 2009 WL 1703015, (N.D.Ill. June 18, 2009) which explained that “[w]ith respect to ‘loss’ under the CFAA, other courts have uniformly found that economic costs unrelated to computer systems do not fall within the statutory definition of the term.” Rather, the purported loss “must relate to the investigation or repair of a computer system following a violation that caused impairment or unavailability of data.” For these reasons, the court in Cassetica Software held that lost revenues that were not related to the impairment of a computer system were not recoverable under the CFAA.

In this case, the court found that plaintiff did not allege any facts connecting its purported “loss” to an interruption of service of its computer systems. Instead, the complaint described an economic loss of revenues related plaintiff’s making business to business sales. Because such economic losses do not fall within the definition of “loss” under the CFAA, the court tossed the CFAA claim.

Computer Fraud and Abuse Act case against hard drive destroying director goes forward

Deloitte & Touche LLP v. Carlson, 2011 WL 2923865 (N.D. Ill. July 18, 2011)

Defendant had risen to the level of Director of a large consulting and professional services firm. (There is some irony here – this case involves the destruction of electronic data, and defendant had been in charge of the firm’s security and privacy practice.)

After defendant left the firm to join a competitor, he returned his work-issued laptop with the old hard drive having been replaced by a new blank one. Defendant had destroyed the old hard drive because it had personal data on it such as tax returns and account information.

The firm sued, putting forth a number of claims, including violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA). Defendant moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. The court denied the motion.

Defendant argued that the CFAA claim should fail because plaintiff had not adequately pled that the destruction of the hard drive was done “without authorization.” The court rejected this argument.

The court looked to Int’l Airport Centers LLC v. Citrin, 440 F.3d 418 (7th Cir. 2006) for guidance on the question of whether defendant’s alleged conduct was “without authorization.” Int’l Airport Centers held that an employee acts without authorization as contemplated under the CFAA if he or she breaches a duty of loyalty to the employer prior to the alleged data destruction.

In this case, plaintiff alleged that defendant began soliciting another employee to leave before defendant left, and that defendant allegedly destroyed the data to cover his tracks. On these facts, the court found the “without authorization” element to be adequately pled.

CFAA violation where employee’s access to work computer violated fiduciary duty to employer

Plaintiff former employer sued defendant former employee for violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, 18 U.S.C. 1030, alleging that defendant, while still in the employ of plaintiff, accessed confidential business information and destroyed other important data. Defendant moved to dismiss the CFAA claim. The court denied the motion.

Defendant had argued that the complaint failed to establish that access to the work computer was had without authorization. He assserted that plaintiff did not allege that at any time while defendant was employed by plaintiff his access to his work-issued computer was restricted, or that plaintiff ever told him that he was no longer permitted to access the computer.

But the plaintiff had alleged that defendant’s access violated the fiduciary duty defendant owed. The court held that under Int’l Airport Ctr., L.L.C. v. Citrin, 440 F.3d 418, 420–21 (7th Cir.2006), allegations of a breach of duty are enough to properly allege that defendant lost his authorization to access his company computer.

Compare this holding (and Citrin) with the Ninth Circuit’s holding in LVRC Holdings v. Brekka.

Employee did not violate Computer Fraud and Abuse Act by checking Facebook and personal email at work

Lee v. PMSI, Inc., 2011 WL 1742028 (M.D.Fla., May 6, 2011)

Former employee sued the company she used to work for alleging pregnancy discrimination. The company countersued under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (“CFAA”) alleging that the former employee violated the CFAA by using her work computer to access Facebook and check her personal email. She moved to dismiss the counterclaim, and the court granted the motion. The court found that the company failed to allege that its computer system was damaged by plaintiff’s internet usage, and plaintiff was alleged only to have accessed her own information, not that of the employer.

Do certain mobile apps violate the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act?

[This is a guest post by attorney Caroline Belich. Caroline is a Chicago native, former Michigan State volleyball player, and recent admitee to the California bar with particular interest in the First Amendment.]

According to the Wall Street Journal and other sources, federal prosecutors in New Jersey are investigating whether certain mobile applications for smartphones have illegally obtained or transmitted information about their users. Part of the criminal investigation is to determine whether these app makers made appropriate disclosures to users about how and why their personal information is being used. The app makers subpoenaed include the popular online music service Pandora.

Examples of information disclosed by these app makers may include a user’s age, gender, location, and also unique identifiers for the phone. The information may then passed on to third parties and advertising networks. The problem is that users may be unaware that their information is being accessed by a smartphone app because a maker failed to notify them.

As a result, this failure to notify may violate the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (18 USC 1030). The CFAA is a federal statute that is often used against hackers. Applying this rationale here, federal prosecutors may argue that the app makers essentially hacked users cellphones.

However, some legal experts believe that criminal charges against the app makers are unlikely. Supporting this belief is the fact that many criminal charges against companies result in non-prosecution or deferred prosecution agreements in exchange for concessions of wrongdoing or monetary payments.

But while criminal charges are doubtful, civil lawsuits by users and causes of action brought by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) may not be. First, consumers may sue app makers for failure to notify under privacy rights claims. Second, the FTC could allege unfair and deceptive trade practices by makers for failure to inform users how their personal information is being employed. Recently, Google settled with the FTC regarding its social network, Buzz, where allegations were made about violations of users’ privacy.

In light of the potential for privacy rights violations and deceptive trade practices, the FTC has advocated a “Do Not Track” option for web browsers and cellphone users, similar to the “Do Not Call” list for telemarketing. But app makers strongly oppose this idea, of course, for various reason. First, it could obstruct their ability to collect data about their users’ utilization of their product. Second, the option could frustrate financial opportunities with third parties seeking the invaluable consumer statistics. And the third justification is best depicted by Facebook’s privacy policy – while a user may be giving away his own information, he’s not giving away that of his friends… as long as his friends haven’t shared the info with “everyone.”

So even if these criminal investigations do not come to fruition, at least the possibility is making the public aware of their rights involving smartphone products so that industry standards may be created or laws requiring notification may be made.

What is a reasonable cost that should count as loss under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act?

1st Rate Mortg. Corp. v. Vision Mortgage Services Corp., 2011 WL 666088 (E.D.Wis. Feb. 14, 2011)

The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) is a popular weapon that employers use against former employees who steal information on the job. But since the employees just use their credentials to get information off the server, there really is no security breach that occurs in those inside jobs.

So you might tend to agree that the employer overreacts when, after discovering the nefarious acts of its employees, it conducts a thorough and expensive security analysis of its whole system. Just delete the offending employees’ accounts and move on, right?

And this overreaction shouldn’t give the employer something to sue over that it would not have had if it reacted reasonably to the threat, don’t you think? After all, plaintiffs have a duty to mitigate their damages.

The defendants (accused former employee information thieves) in a recent federal case in Wisconsin argued along these lines in their summary judgment brief. But the court did not buy it at the summary judgment stage – whether a CFAA plaintiff’s reaction to alleged theft is “reasonable” should be answered by the jury.

The CFAA allows a plaintiff to recover its “loss.” And courts have interpreted the term “loss” to include the cost of responding to a security breach. But the statute says that loss includes the “reasonable cost to any victim.”

In this case, defendants argued that the employer’s overreaction in doing a system-wide analysis caused the employer to incur an unreasonable (and therefore uncompensable) cost. The court held, however, that “[w]hat matters is whether the employer’s reaction was reasonable, not whether it was strictly necessary to continuing in business.” A jury may well conclude the reaction and its related costs were appropriate.

Federal court applies Seescandy.com test to unmask anonymous defendants in copyright and privacy case

Liberty Media Holdings, LLC. v. Does 1-59, 2011 WL 292128 (S.D. Cal., January 25, 2011)

Plaintiff porn company sued 59 anonymous defendants it knew only by IP address for violation of the Stored Communications Act (SCA), the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) and for copyright infringement. Since plaintiff did not know who the defendants were, it had to jump through a few hoops to find out their names.

The court rewarded such hoop-jumping by ordering that the defendants’ identities be turned over.

Hoop #1 – The Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984

A subpoena to the defendants’ internet service providers would reveal the needed information. But these ISPs, being governed by the Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984, could not turn over their subscribers’ information without a court order. (See 47 USC 515(c)(2)(B))

Hoop #2 – Discovery prior to the Rule 26(f) conference

What’s more, a plaintiff cannot start conducting discovery (and a subpoena is a discovery tool) until after it has had the initial conference with the defendant (the Rule 26(f) conference). But how can a plaintiff confer with a defendant it does not know? There is a bootstrapping problem here. The court has to step in and issue an order allowing the discovery be had.

Hoop #3 – Balancing injury versus right to anonymous speech

And getting that court order is a bit problematic and nuanced when one is dealing with anonymous defendants. The courts recognize the conflict between a need to provide injured plaintiffs with a forum in which they may seek redress for grievances, and the right of John Doe defendants to use the internet anonymously or pseudonymously when appropriate.

So judges apply a balancing test to weigh these interests. Different courts apply different tests. Some apply a very demanding standard, requiring plaintiffs to present enough facts to withstand a hypothetical motion for summary judgment. Other cases require a lesser burden be carried, looking merely to whether the complaint would survive a motion to dismiss. That’s the standard the court applied in this case.

The Seescandy.com standard

It looked to the 1999 case of Columbia Ins. Co. v. Seescandy.com, 185 F.R.D. 573, 577 (N.D.Cal.1999) which articulated the following test:

  • First, the plaintiff should identify the missing party with sufficient specificity such that the Court can determine that (the) defendant is a real person or entity that could be sued in federal court …
  • Second, the (plaintiff) should identify all previous steps taken to locate the elusive defendant …
  • Third, Plaintiff should establish to the Court’s satisfaction that plaintiff’s suit against (the) defendant could withstand a motion to dismiss … Plaintiff must make some showing that an act giving rise to civil liability actually occurred and that the discovery is aimed at revealing specific identifying features of the person or entity who committed the act.

In this case, the court found that each of these criteria had been met across the board.

It found that plaintiff had identified the defendants as best it could. Plaintiff provided the court with the unique IP addresses assigned to each defendant and the ISP that provided each defendant with internet access. Further, the requested discovery was necessary for plaintiff to determine the names and addresses of each defendant who performed the allegedly illegal and infringing acts.

The only information plaintiff had regarding the defendants was their IP addresses and their ISPs. Therefore, there were no other measures plaintiff could have taken to identify the defendants other than to obtain their identifying information from their ISPs.

And the court found the allegations supporting each of the claims were sufficient to survive a motion to dismiss.

As to the SCA, the complaint alleged that defendants intentionally accessed plaintiff’s web servers, which are facilities where electronic communication services are provided, defendants had no right to access the copyrighted materials on plaintiff’s website, and defendants obtained access to these electronic communications while these communications were in electronic storage.

On the CFAA claim, the complaint alleged that defendants unlawfully and without authorization entered into plaintiff’s computer server, which was used in interstate commerce, where plaintiff’s copyrighted materials were contained, stole plaintiff’s copyrighted materials, valued in excess of $15,000, and as a result of such conduct, caused plaintiff to suffer damage. Based on these facts, 18 USC 1030(g) authorized plaintiff’s civil action.

And as for copyright infringement, plaintiff alleged that it is the owner of the copyrights for certain motion pictures, which were accessed, reproduced, distributed and publicly displayed by defendants. Also, plaintiff alleged that defendants, without authorization, intentionally accessed, reproduced and distributed plaintiff’s copyrighted works onto their local hard drives or other storage devices.

Palin email hacker conviction survives motion for acquittal

U.S. v. Kernell, No. 08-CR-142 (E.D. Tenn. September 23, 2010)

A federal jury convicted defendant for a number of crimes related to his hacking into Sarah Palin’s Yahoo email account in September 2008. One of the crimes the jury convicted him of was the “destruction or alteration of a record or document with the intent to obstruct an investigation” (a violation of 18 USC 1519).

After hacking into Palin’s account, but before the formal FBI investigation began, defendant deleted some Palin family pictures he had downloaded from the account, uninstalled his web browser, and defragmented his hard drive.

Defendant moved for a “judgment of acquittal”, arguing that the evidence was insufficent to support his convictions. The court denied the motion.

The court found that the Government offered sufficient proof to support the conviction. Even though defendant preserved (did not destroy) his computer, spoke with an FBI agent investigating the matter and advised his friends to be truthful in what they said about the case, the court looked to the totality of the evidence as supporting defendant’s guilt.

Given that defendant deleted images from his computer that he had downloaded from Palin’s account, and had run web searches on “legalities email” and “soppenaing [sic.] ip addresses”, a rational jury could find him guilty. So the jury verdit stood.