Commentary

AT&T Hacker Appeals Conviction: No Crime To 'Visit A Public Website'

Three years ago, hacker Andrew Auernheimer embarrassed AT&T by exposing its questionable security practices.

Specifically, Auernheimer publicly called out AT&T for posting the email addresses of iPad users online, without protecting the information via passwords. Auernheimer, better known as “Weev,” and another hacker, Daniel Spitler, figured out that AT&T had placed iPad users' email addresses on pages that could be called up by anyone who had the correct URLs. (The URLs all began with the same block of characters but went on to include particular iPads' serial numbers.)

After discovering that AT&T had left the data unsecured, Auernheimer and Spitler obtained around 114,000 e-mail addresses of iPad users, including New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel. Auernheimer sent the findings to Gawker, which reported on the security glitch.

AT&T was not amused. Neither were the federal authorities, who prosecuted Auernheimer for violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act by allegedly accessing AT&T's computer without authorization. Auernheimer also was prosecuted for identity theft, for sharing the email addresses with Gawker.

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Auernheimer was convicted of both counts and sentenced to 41 months in prison. He was also ordered to pay AT&T $71,167 -- the amount of money the telecom spent notifying iPad users, via snail mail, that their email addresses had been discovered.

This week, Auernheimer's legal team filed an appeal with the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. Auernheimer's lawyers rightly argue that he didn't exceed his “authorized access” when the information he obtained was available to anyone with an Internet connection.

“The fundamental question in this case is whether it is a crime to visit a public website,” they write. "AT&T published the e-mail addresses of its customers on a public website ... Because AT&T chose to make the information available to the public, visiting the AT&T website to collect the e-mail addresses was authorized and legal.”

They also ask the appellate court to reject the idea that Auernheimer's guilt hinges on whether AT&T wanted the emails kept secret. “At trial, the government argued that using the program was unauthorized because AT&T did not approve of what Spitler and Auernheimer did... This argument misstates the law,” they argue. “Although AT&T did not wish that outsiders would collect the information, the law does not criminalize visiting a website in ways that owners find dissatisfying.”

Auernheimer himself is hardly a sympathetic defendant. He has a long history as an online troll, and has made some dumb comments about his case. The night before his sentencing, he posted the following statement on Reddit: "My regret is being nice enough to give AT&T a chance to patch before dropping the dataset to Gawker. I won’t nearly be as nice next time.”

But, sympathetic or not, his conviction should be vacated. Allowing the verdict to stand poses a real threat to Web users -- not to mention independent security researchers, who often use methods similar to Auernheimer's in order to discover vulnerabilities.

"I have little respect for Weev, but we should all be terrified that guessing a URL can get you 3.5 years of jailtime," tech entrepreneur Anil Dash tweeted the day Weev was sentenced.

Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney Hanni Fakhoury, who is among Auernheimer's lawyers, adds in a Wired op-ed that convicting someone of computer fraud for accessing public data “allows companies ... to dictate what is and isn’t criminal behavior, and to do so in arbitrary ways.”

He adds: “How’s a person surfing the internet supposed to know when they can or can’t view information if there’s no technical barrier to access? If Wired decided only people from the U.S. could read its otherwise publicly available Opinion pieces, and someone tries to access the site from the U.K., get ready for a prison jumpsuit.”

2 comments about "AT&T Hacker Appeals Conviction: No Crime To 'Visit A Public Website'".
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  1. christopher collins from Cqs Business Solutions, July 3, 2013 at 6:34 p.m.

    Not using common sense is not illegal. I just watch a video called Steve Jobs "the lost interview" he started out his computer life by taking advantage of a flaw in the system and he was never prosecuted? Check it out...he learned to copy the tone sounds a phone made and then sold a box to allow free calls! At&t needs to just admit the oversight and stop looking for a fall guy. Good luck.

  2. Pete Austin from Fresh Relevance, July 4, 2013 at 4:30 a.m.

    Here's the legal brief. It's very good and the introductory points are easy to follow. You can get a feel for the core of the case by noting that this is a deep link to a specific document - do you know that you have permission to download it?
    http://www.volokh.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/WeevBrief.pdf

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