First it was SOPA, then it was CISPA, and now a proposed revision to the 1984 CFAA (Computer Fraud and Abuse Act) threatens the rights of internet users everywhere. The Act “bans unauthorized use of computers”, which is just vague enough so that no one quite knows when they are violating it, according to an article from International Business Times. The act would expand the scope of illegal activity to include accessing information for an “impermissible purpose”, so that even if the use of a computer was authorized, the information accessed could still land someone in hot water. Had these changes been made earlier, NSA whiste-blowers Bill Binney and Thomas Drake could have faced jail time for accessing certain information on government computers. In the end Drake pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor misuse of a government computer.
The revision to the act also would increase the amount of jail time possible for each offense. For examples, Aaron Swartz faced 4 charges under the CFAA for illegally downloading academic journals, before he killed himself earlier this year. He faced a possible 5 years for each offense, but under the new revision each offense would carry a maximum of 20 years in prison, meaning Swartz could have faced 80 years in prison, for downloading millions of academic journals off of JSTOR.
Among many additions, the new CFAA draft expands the number of ways a person could be prosecuted by punishing anyone who “conspires to commit” violations just like those that have already “completed” the offense. It also adds computer crimes as a form of “racketeering activity,” to allow the Department of Justice to hit computer criminals with further charges in court. And if you’re found guilty, the new CFAA endorses more severe punishments for any offenders by raising the maximum sentences available for certain violations.
For instance, have you ever been on facebook and seen a ridiculous post which obviously did not come from the person whose account posted it? That could land the poster in jail according to the language of the bill. Many experts believe the revision to CFAA is an attempt to create vague arbitrary laws which could be applied to anyone who becomes a target of the U.S. government. It is being sold as protecting our infrastructure, and cracking down on internet crimes, but what it really does is put innocent people at risk of prosecution, with insanely harsh prison terms. A computer law expert was quoted in the article as claiming that the revision to the law would make it a felony to “lie about your age on an online dating profile if you intended to contact someone online and ask them personal questions”. Does 20 years in prison fit that crime?
The revision would give unprecedented powers to the Department of Justice who could use the law to in effect, censor the internet. The government has been trying to get its dirty regulatory hands on the internet for some time, because it is the last free place on earth. And information traveling freely over the internet is the most effective way to counter government oppression in America and worldwide. It seems that the point of these revisions is to make it so that the DOJ can choose a target, and then find something to charge them with. With the new language of the bill, every internet user in America would be a criminal. It is important to contact our lawmakers before this bill goes to a vote in mid April during “cyber week”. Don’t let the coincidence slip by that the original bill was implemented in 1984, I’ll take that as a sign.