ABA Journal

Hacker’s Hell: Many want to narrow the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act


Keith Downey could be sentenced to as much as 15 years in prison if convicted of violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Photo by Stacy Ryan Ketterman.

Angered that the Internet site PayPal had ceased allowing its users to donate to the controversial online publisher WikiLeaks, 14 computer users allegedly fought back. They sent PayPal multiple communication requests, a program that hackers use to saturate networks with information and crash them.

One of the programmers, Keith W. Downey from Jacksonville, Fla., was charged with violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act for unauthorized use of a computer. If convicted, Downey, 28, faces 15 years in federal prison.

Downey is among a growing number of individuals charged with violating the CFAA. In late 2010, Aaron Swartz, a well-known Internet developer, began posing as a guest on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology network and downloaded academic journals from the digital library JSTOR. Swartz, an open-source leader who developed the RSS feed, was charged with wire fraud, computer fraud, unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer, and recklessly damaging a computer. He faced up to 35 years.

In January the 26-year-old Swartz was found dead in his Brooklyn apartment, where he had hanged himself. Friends and family say the indictment was why he killed himself, although Carmen M. Ortiz, the Massachusetts U.S. attorney whose office prosecuted the case, said after his death that her agency would have agreed to a six-month sentence. Ortiz’s public statement added, however, that “this office’s conduct was appropriate in bringing and handling this case.”

Click here to read the rest of “Hacker’s Hell” from the May issue of the ABA Journal.

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