Anti-hacking law questioned after death of Internet activist

Tue Jan 15, 2013 6:17pm EST
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By Aaron Pressman

BOSTON (Reuters) - Lie about your identity on Facebook or delete files from your work laptop before you quit and you could run afoul of a 29-year-old U.S. computer security law that some experts say has been changed so often it no longer makes sense.

The U.S. Computer Fraud and Abuse Act has come under renewed criticism after last week's suicide of Internet activist Aaron Swartz, who could have faced prison time for alleged hacking to download millions of academic articles from a private database through a network at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The 26-year-old's family blamed the suicide on "intimidation" from what they described as an overzealous U.S. prosecutor, who threatened Swartz with prison and up to $1 million in fines.

Swartz, who helped found popular website Reddit, had "problems with depression for many years," his friend, science fiction author Cory Doctorow, wrote in an online eulogy on Saturday.

The U.S. attorney's case was based on the 1984 CFAA law, which some legal experts contend has been amended so many times that some portions of it no longer make sense. Penalties for minor offenses can exceed those for more serious crimes and key terms of the law, written before the arrival of the Internet as a cultural phenomenon, remain undefined.

"So much has changed and gotten more complicated and the law has kept Frankenstein-ing," said Eric Goldman, a professor at the Santa Clara University School of Law. "You step back and see that it's become a horrible, hideous monster."

Other legal experts said the prosecution, led by U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz in Boston, followed the law closely in bringing charges against Swartz, who argued that research created with public funds should be freely shared on the Internet.

Authorities charge that, when MIT tried to shut off the downloads, Swartz hid and altered his computer's network identity and eventually sneaked into a closet at the university's Cambridge, Massachusetts, campus to gain access to the 4 million articles.   Continued...

Aaron Swartz poses in a Borderland Books in San Francisco on February 4, 2008. REUTERS/Noah Berger