Tag Archives: computer fraud and abuse act

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.

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.

Lack of unauthorized access kills Computer Fraud and Abuse Act claim

Oce North America, Inc. v. MCS Services, Inc., No. 10-984, 2010 WL 3703277 (D.Md. September 16, 2010)

Plaintiff makes sophisticated commercial grade printers. It also produces complex software that is used to diagnose problems with the printers and to set the functionality of the machines.

A field engineer who used to work for plaintiff allegedly copied some of the software onto his laptop when he worked for plaintiff. Later he went to work for one of the defendant companies, a competitor to plaintiff that also services plaintiff’s machines. Other employees of the defendant allegedly used copies of the software to do their work for defendant.

Plaintiff sued for, among other things, violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), which prohibits unauthorized access to protected computers. Defendants moved to dismiss. The court granted the motion.

The court held that plaintiff failed to allege that the field engineer’s access to the computer containing the software was unauthorized, because he accessed it and copied it to his laptop while he still worked for plaintiff. And that access was authorized.

As for the other defendants, the court held that the defendant company’s access to the software on the various laptops was not unauthorized. The critical point in this portion of the CFAA analysis was on whether access to the actual computer (not access to the software) was unauthorized. The defendant employees allowed access to the laptops onto which the diagnostic software was allegedly installed. So the CFAA claim failed on this basis.

Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, the Stored Communications Act, and unauthorized access

Monson v. The Whitby School, Inc., No. 09-1096, 2010 WL 3023873 (D.Conn. August 2, 2010)

Plaintiff Monson sued her former employer (a private school) for sex discrimination and related claims. The school filed counterclaims against Monson for, among other things, violation of (1) the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) and (2) the Stored Communications Act (SCA).

The counterclaims were based on allegations that Monson gained unauthorized access to the school’s email server to unlawfully view and delete email messages contained in the email accounts of other school employees. Upon learning of her impending termination, the school alleged, Monson used this unauthorized access to delete more than 1,500 email messages. Further, the school alleged that after Monson was terminated, she intentionally deleted data and software programs that resided on her school-issued computers before she returned them to the school.

Monson moved to dismiss the counterclaims. The court denied the motion.

CFAA claim

Monson argued that the school had not adequately pled that her actions — accessing and deleting data and software — were unauthorized. The court rejected this argument, finding that while it may be implausible (a la Twombly and Iqbal) that Monson wasn’t authorized to access her own email account, there was no reason to find it implausible she was not authorized to access the email accounts of others.

SCA claim

The court dismissed the SCA claim for essentially the same reason. Monson had argued that the school’s “formulaic” statement that she had accessed the stored electronic communications were not pled with enough detail to state a claim. The court found that the allegations were sufficient.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user croncast under this Creative Commons license.

Access to private email server supports Stored Communications Act claims

Devine v. Kapasi, 2010 WL 2293461 (N.D. Ill. June 7, 2010)

Kapasi and Devine were equal shareholders in a corporation. In August 2009, the two decided to part ways. The corporation transferred one of its servers to Devine, and he immediately put it into the service of his new company.

After the server was transferred, Kapasi and some employees of the old company allegedly logged on to the server to access and delete email messages stored on that machine. Devine and his new company sued for violation of the Stored Communications Act (at 18 U.S.C. §2701) and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (at 18 U.S.C. §1030).

The defendants moved to dismiss under FRCP 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim. The court denied the motion as to the Stored Communications Act claims but granted the motion (with leave to amend) as to the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act claims.

The Stored Communications Act claims

The defendants argued that the Stored Communications Act did not apply to access to the server because plaintiffs did not provide an electronic communications service to the public. Defendants relied on the case of Andersen Consulting LLP v. UOP, 991 F.Supp. 1041 (N.D.Il.1998) to support this argument. In that case, the court dismissed a Stored Communications Act claim for unauthorized disclosure of emails under 18 U.S.C. §2702. The Andersen Consulting court held that disclosure of emails obtained from the server of a company not in the business of providing electronic communications services to the public did not violate the Stored Communications Act.

This case, however, arose under 18 U.S.C. §2701, which does not impose the same scope on potential defendants – the term “to the public” does not appear in connection with the provision of electronic communication services in §2701. Section 2701 deals with unauthorized access, while §2702 deals with unauthorized disclosure.

So the court held that “[w]here, as here, a plaintiff pleads that it stores electronic communications on its own systems, and that a defendant intentionally and without authorization got hold of those stored communications through the plaintiff’s electronic facilities, the plaintiff states a claim under § 2701 of the [Stored Communications Act].”

The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act claims

The court dismissed the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act claims, finding that the plaintiffs failed to plead that they suffered a cognizable “loss” under the statute. The plaintiffs were required to plead that the defendants’ conduct “caused . . . loss to 1 or more persons during any 1-year period . . . aggregating at least $5,000 in value.” Such allegations were simply missing from the complaint.

The defendants tried an interesting argument that the court rejected as premature at the motion to dismiss stage. They argued that since one of the plaintiffs was a technology company, it should have had a backup of all the data allegedly deleted. Therefore, any cost in excess of the $5,000 statutory threshold would not be a “reasonable cost.” Though it didn’t fly at the motion to dismiss stage, such an argument may fare better in a motion for summary judgment.

Photo courtesy Flickr user Jordiet under this Creative Commons License.

Judge: the concept of internet privacy is a fallacy upon which no one should rely

People v. Klapper, — N.Y.S.2d —, 2010 WL 1704796 (N.Y.City Crim.Ct., April 28, 2010)

Let’s hope that’s an overstatement.

A recent case from a criminal court in New York dealt with whether an employer violated the state’s law prohibiting unauthorized use of a computer (Penal Law 156.05). Though the court probably came to the right decision in dismissing the case, it said some puzzling things along the way about internet privacy.

The defendant-boss was alleged to have installed keylogging software on his employee’s work-issued computer. Through those means he acquired the password for the employee’s “personal” email account, and copied some messages from that account.

The court dismissed the case, finding that the prosecution had not alleged that defendant, the computer owner, had notice of any limited access to the computer or the email account. (After all, it was the employer’s computer.) The allegations further failed to allege that the employee had installed a security device to prevent unauthorized access or use.

That last part is a bit puzzling (wouldn’t the password protection on the “personal” email account satisfy that point?). But the real puzzling part of the opinion is how the court essentially destroyed the idea that there’s any hope for an expectation of privacy in internet communications.

Here’s the first paragraph of the opinion:

In this day of wide dissemination of thoughts and messages through transmissions which are vulnerable to interception and readable by unintended parties, armed with software, spyware, viruses and cookies spreading capacity; the concept of internet privacy is a fallacy upon which no one should rely.

Apart from grossly overstating the death of a reasonable expectation of privacy in internet communications, the pronouncement was not needed to dispose of the case. The matter only dealt tangentially with whether the victim had any privacy rights violated. The real analysis was on whether the defendant had notice that access to his employee’s email account was unauthorized.

Though the court was correct on focusing its analysis on that point, i.e., whether the access was authorized, the more general obituary of internet privacy would seem to elminate the need for that proper analysis.

If there’s no internet privacy, why should we even bother to ask ourselves whether access to an account is authorized? If the concept of internet privacy is a “fallacy,” as the court declared, aren’t all our communications open for inspection and review by anyone?

Privacy photo courtesy Flickr user rpongsaj under this Creative Commons license.

What the Lori Drew acquittal should mean for service providers

You know the story of Lori Drew — the mom from Missouri who was accused of setting up a bogus MySpace profile impersonating an adolescent boy. Lori acted as this fake “Josh” to stir up romantic feelings in young Megan Meier who, after being dumped by “Josh,” took her own life.

A terrible thing of course. And someone needed blaming. So federal prosecutors chose to go after Lori Drew. The jury convicted her of violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (the federal anti-hacking statute), but today the judge acquitted her. Seems like a good decision, as the theory on which the prosecution based its case — that Lori violated the site’s terms of service by saying she was someone other than she is and thereby exceeded her authority — was shaky at best. The big problem with that theory was that such a reading would make most of us criminals. I’m sure you don’t mean to tell me you’ve never signed up for an online service using something other than your real name or accurate contact information.

Most smart people can agree that the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act was not the right way to punish this “crime.” Various states have enacted legislation to handle cyberbullying and are already prosecuting people in state court. But the problem is not going to go away. People will still do foolish things on the internet.

And to the extent that foolishness is criminal, the individual should pay a criminal price. The individual.

Using the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act to go after this conduct put the contractual relationship between the end user and the provider (i.e., Lori Drew and MySpace) under the microscope where it did not belong. The court and jury had to scrutinize that contractual relationship and the resulting authority (or lack thereof). They had to do that because there was no other way the government was going to win a CFAA prosecution otherwise.

Focusing on that relationship in this context did not make sense. MySpace didn’t have anything to do with this other than being a passive intermediary. Why should the inquiry at trial have gone to those kinds of questions? Why should the intermediary have been bothered? It shouldn’t have.

The bad act was (I guess we have to again say “allegedly was” now that she’s been acquitted) between Lori Drew and Megan Meier. That’s the space where the factual focus and legal analysis belonged. Not in the legal relationship between Lori Drew and MySpace.

Now that we have a sensible legal outcome in this case, hopefully prosecutors will take some more principled approaches and leave the intermediaries out of it.

Unauthorized software downloads did not violate Computer Fraud and Abuse Act

Cassetica Software, Inc. v. Computer Sciences Corp, 2009 WL 1703015 (N.D.Ill. 2009)

Cassetica Software made an application available for download on the web and entered into a license agreement for that application with Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC). Cassetica alleged that CSC continued to download the application after the license agreement expired.

download

So Cassetica sued in federal court, alleging a number of causes of action, including violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, 18 USC 1030 et seq. (CFAA). CSC moved to dismiss pursuant to FRCP 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim. The court granted the motion, finding that Cassetica did not plead either damage or loss as required by the CFAA.

What the CFAA requires

Interpreting the CFAA differently that at least one other judge in the Northern District of Illinois has (cf. Garelli Wong & Assoc. v. Nichols, 551 F.Supp.2d 704 (N.D.Ill. 2008)), Judge Kendall held that Cassetica was required to plead either damage or loss as such terms are defined in the CFAA. (In Garelli Wong, the court held that both damage and loss must be pled.)

Under the CFAA, “damage” is defined as “any impairment to the integrity or availability of data, a program, a system, or information.” “Loss” is defined 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.”

Insufficient damage allegations

The bare allegations of damage in the complaint were not enough. The court found that Cassetica did not allege any facts that would plausibly suggest that the software downloads — authorized or not — caused a diminution in the computers or usability of [Cassetica's] computerized data.” The court went on to observe that “[c]ritically absent from the Complaint are allegations that CSC’s downloads resulted in lost data, the inability to offer downloads to its customers, or that the downloads affected the availability of the software.”

Insufficient loss allegations

Cassetica’s complaint also failed to plead loss. The allegations primarily dealt with the lost fees Cassetica would have received had the alleged unauthorized downloading not taken place. Because Cassetica did not allege that it lost revenues as a result of an interruption in service caused by CSC, its claim for lost revenue fell outside the CFAA’s definition of “loss.”

Download picture courtesy Flickr user soren_nb under this Creative Commons license.

No CFAA claim where no impairment of system or data

Andritz, Inc. v. Southern Maintenance Contractor, LLC, 2009 WL 48187 (M.D. Ga. January 7, 2008)

When defendants Pettit and Harper worked for plaintiff Andritz, Inc., they had company-issued laptops with which they accessed proprietary information. After defendants resigned, they allegedly took that proprietary information and gave it to defendant-competitor SMC.

Andritz sued in federal court, alleging violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA). Defendants moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim. The court granted the motion.

The CFAA claim failed because the plaintiff did not allege the type of “loss” or “damage” required to sustain such a claim. The loss that plaintiff alleged was that defendants took proprietary information and used it to poach customers.

But the CFAA requires there be an impairment of the computer system or data accessed. Because the plaintiff “still had access to the data just as it had before [d]efendants’ actions,” there was no violation of the CFAA.

Similar cases: Sam’s Wines & Liquors, Inc. v. Hartig and Garelli Wong & Assoc. v. Nichols.

Laptop photo courtesy Flickr user maveric2003 via this Creative Commons license.