Feeds

Lawyers fear misuse of cyber murder law

Squeezing quick guilty pleas from non-lethal cyberpunks?

  • alert
  • submit to reddit

The Essential Guide to IT Transformation

securityfocus.com A genuine cyber murder may never happen outside the pages of tabloid newspapers and Tom Clancy novels, but defense attorneys say that won't keep federal prosecutors from getting some mileage out of a provision in the newly-passed Homeland Security bill that dictates a maximum sentence of life imprisonment without parole for computer hackers with homicide in their hearts.

One of many information security and cybercrime measures in the 484-page bill - which won final approval in the Senate Tuesday - the life sentence is reserved for those who deliberately transmit a program, information, code, or command that impairs the performance of a computer or modifies its data without authorization, "if the offender knowingly or recklessly causes or attempts to cause death".

If the attacker only causes or attempts to cause bodily injury through hacking, the crime carries a 20-year sentence.

While it sounds straightforward enough, defense attorneys who've worked on significant hacking cases worry that many aspects of computer crime law remain too unclear to provide a sound anchor for as weighty a sentence as life imprisonment, and they say the new provisions add more confusion to a still-evolving area of law.

"You can drive a truck through the ambiguities in that language," says Donald Randolph, the Los Angeles criminal defense attorney who represented hacker Kevin Mitnick. "It's a daunting prospect to address this when you have words like 'attempts to cause' and 'recklessly.' I could see prosecutors arguing that the term 'reckless' defines every instance of hacking."

"While it's completely understandable that society would want to impose a life sentence for any kind of murder... what we've done is attached that idea to the underlying vagueness of the anti-hacking law, and there are a lot of things that are not clear in the law and not clear in the statute," says Jennifer Granick, director of Stanford Law School's Center for Internet and Society, and defense attorney in several federal hacker cases. "Technology is progressing so rapidly... to attach a life sentence to an area of the law that is still in the earliest stages of the development is dangerous."

Plea Bargains

Notwithstanding apocryphal reports of hackers changing blood types at a New York hospital, or a twelve-year-old boy coming within keystrokes of opening the floodgates at an Arizona dam, no cases of attempted cyber murder or cyber terrorism have been reliably reported. But the defense lawyers believe that the new law -- or the threat of it -- will play a significant role in conventional, non-lethal, hacker cases.

"I'll be used to get guilty pleas," says Granick. "People will be afraid that they're going to get the life sentence so they'll take a deal for less than life, and give up their right to appeal and to test the law."

Other legal experts disagree. "I doubt it," says Orin Kerr, a cyber law professor at George Washington University Law School, and a former attorney with the Justice Department's computer crime section. Kerr believes prosecutors won't use the attempted murder language to squeeze guilty pleas out of hackers, and says the new provision will most likely gather dust -- an unused and overlooked curiosity in the law books.

"The practical effect of this is almost none," says Kerr. "It's probably mostly symbolic -- perhaps useful in a case of a terrorist act of computer hacking designed to cause a lot of deaths, in which case it would give the federal government jurisdiction."

"Forgive me for being pessimistic after 28 years as a criminal defense attorney... but I would say it will absolutely, positively be used to compel plea bargains," counters Randolph. "That's the name of the game in 90% of the prosecutions I'm involved in."

© 2002 Security Focus.

Build a business case: developing custom apps

More from The Register

next story
14 antivirus apps found to have security problems
Vendors just don't care, says researcher, after finding basic boo-boos in security software
'Things' on the Internet-of-things have 25 vulnerabilities apiece
Leaking sprinklers, overheated thermostats and picked locks all online
iWallet: No BONKING PLEASE, we're Apple
BLE-ding iPhones, not NFC bonkers, will drive trend - marketeers
Only '3% of web servers in top corps' fully fixed after Heartbleed snafu
Just slapping a patched OpenSSL on a machine ain't going to cut it, we're told
How long is too long to wait for a security fix?
Synology finally patches OpenSSL bugs in Trevor's NAS
Israel's Iron Dome missile tech stolen by Chinese hackers
Corporate raiders Comment Crew fingered for attacks
Tor attack nodes RIPPED MASKS off users for 6 MONTHS
Traffic confirmation attack bared users' privates - but to whom?
Roll out the welcome mat to hackers and crackers
Security chap pens guide to bug bounty programs that won't fail like Yahoo!'s
Canada's boffins need A WHOLE YEAR to recover from China hack attack
'State-sponsored actor' breached National Research Council network
prev story

Whitepapers

Implementing global e-invoicing with guaranteed legal certainty
Explaining the role local tax compliance plays in successful supply chain management and e-business and how leading global brands are addressing this.
Boost IT visibility and business value
How building a great service catalog relieves pressure points and demonstrates the value of IT service management.
Why and how to choose the right cloud vendor
The benefits of cloud-based storage in your processes. Eliminate onsite, disk-based backup and archiving in favor of cloud-based data protection.
The Essential Guide to IT Transformation
ServiceNow discusses three IT transformations that can help CIO's automate IT services to transform IT and the enterprise.
Maximize storage efficiency across the enterprise
The HP StoreOnce backup solution offers highly flexible, centrally managed, and highly efficient data protection for any enterprise.