On Bloomberg.com today, Michael Riley reports that some of the documents hosted at Wikileaks may not be “leaks” at all, at least not in the traditional sense of the word. Instead, according to a computer security firm called Tiversa, “computers in Sweden” have been searching the files shared on p2p networks like Limewire for sensitive and confidential information, and the firm supposedly has proof that some of the documents found in this way have ended up on the Wikileaks site. These charges are denied as “completely false in every regard” by Wikileaks lawyer Mark Stephens.
I have no idea whether these accusations are true, but I am interested to learn from the story that if they are true they might provide “an alternate path for prosecuting WikiLeaks,” most importantly because the reporter attributes this claim to me. Although I wasn’t misquoted in the article, I think what I said to the reporter is a few shades away from what he reported, so I wanted to clarify what I think about this.
In the interview and in the article, I focus only on the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (“CFAA”), the primary federal law prohibiting computer hacking. The CFAA defines a number of federal crimes, most of which turn on whether an action on a computer or network was done “without authorization” or in a way that “exceeds authorized access.”
The question presented by the reporter to me (though not in these words) was: is it a violation of the CFAA to systematically crawl a p2p network like Limewire searching for and downloading files that might be mistakenly shared, like spreadsheets or word processing documents full of secrets?
I don’t think so. With everything I know about the text of this statute, the legislative history surrounding its enactment, and the cases that have interpreted it, this kind of searching and downloading won’t “exceed the authorized access” of the p2p network. This simply isn’t a crime under the CFAA.
But although I don’t think this is a viable theory, I can’t unequivocally dismiss it for a few reasons, all of which I tried to convey in the interview. First, some courts have interpreted “exceeds authorized access” broadly, especially in civil lawsuits arising under the CFAA. For example, back in 2001, one court declared it a CFAA violation to utilize a spider capable of collecting prices from a travel website by a competitor, if the defendant built the spider by taking advantage of “proprietary information” from a former employee of the plaintiff. (For much more on this, see this article by Orin Kerr.)
Second, it seems self-evident that these confidential files are being shared on accident. The users “leaking” these files are either misunderstanding or misconfiguring their p2p clients in ways that would horrify them, if only they knew the truth. While this doesn’t translate directly into “exceeds authorized access,” it might weigh heavily in court, especially if the government can show that a reasonable searcher/downloader would immediately and unambiguously understand that the files were shared on accident.
Third, let’s be realistic: there may be judges who are so troubled by what they see as the harm caused by Wikileaks that they might be willing to read the open-textured and mostly undefined terms of the CFAA broadly if it might help throw a hurdle in Wikileaks’ way. I’m not saying that judges will bend the law to the facts, but I think that with a law as vague as the CFAA, multiple interpretations are defensible.
But I restate my conclusion: I think a prosecution under the CFAA against someone for searching a p2p network should fail. The text and caselaw of the CFAA don’t support such a prosecution. Maybe it’s “not a slam dunk either way,” as I am quoted saying in the story, but for the lawyers defending against such a theory, it’s at worst an easy layup.