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internet-networking in Internet & Networking Channel,
Written by: Richard Bashara on Aug 6 2010, 2:53pm

Should Accessing Someone's Email be a Federal Crime?

An interesting case out of San Francisco this week casts further doubt on the federal government’s poor attempts at regulating the internet.  This time around, it’s an alleged violation of the double Jeopardy clause mixed with a bit of privacy invasion. 

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Should accessing someone’s email without authorization be considered a federal crime?

US v Cioni | The Case

According to the briefing for the case, here’s how it all went down:

“This case concerns defendant Elaine Cioni’s conviction for crimes committed in the course of harassing her former lover and his wife. Cioni was convicted on five felony charges. Only two of these charges — Counts 2 and 4 — are the subject of this brief.

Count 2 of the Superseding Indictment claims that on numerous occasions between November 2006 and March 2008, Cioni gained unauthorized access and exceeded authorized access to AOL’s email servers and obtained Maureen Enger’s unopened emails. (J.A. 37.) Count 4 alleges that on March 12, 2008, Cioni gained unauthorized access and exceeded authorized access to an AOL computer and obtained messages in Patty Freeman’s email account. (J.A. 39.)”

In the original case, Cioni was given felony punishment for a misdemeanor crime.  Where the confusion actually comes into play has to do with the literal reading of the CFAA (Computer Fraud and Abuse Act).  The fed has punishments for those that are repeat offenders in this situation, but first time offenses are generally ruled as a misdemeanor. 

What the prosecution claimed was that the violations were further than what is outlined in the SCA (Stored Communications Act).  For these reasons, the prosecution did not feel that the SCA covered the offense properly and pushed for a tougher punishment. 

"The government has piggybacked computer crime violations to punish misdemeanor conduct as two felonies," said EFF Senior Staff Attorney Marcia Hofmann. "This misreading of the law would let the government charge anyone who accesses someone else's email with a felony. That was not Congress's intent when it created these statutes."

Obviously tensions are pretty high.

What the CFAA Actually Says

The CFAA outlines provisions to protect against unauthorized access that leads to the accidental (or unintended) divulging of classified or protected information.  The statute specifically protects information related the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, Financial records, information on departments within the government, or information from any protected computer. 

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where the law was misinterpreted, but examination of the two codes shows many similarities that allow the law (in this particular circumstance) to be read either way.  Cioni hacked AOL to retrieve the emails, and those are “protected” computers under federal law. 

Felony or Misdemeanor?

While the punishment to a simple lover’s quarrel may seem harsh, it’s worth asking if the Fed is in the right.  In this case, Cioni was convicted of five felony charges.  Even if they struck two, she still faces punishment for the other three.  My point being that Cioni is being punished for this, even with “leniency” on her side. 

Is it ok to just go hacking other people’s emails because of a disagreement?  Should it be a federal crime?  What are your thoughts?

Citizens Comments

Allan Lummis says:

no its not ok to go hacking other peoples emails just like its not ok to intercept and read other peoples snail mail, i think they both should be treated the same, mail is mail, wether snail or e.

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Aug 13 2010, 6:07pm | Report

Richard Bashara says:

Yes but I think there is a big difference between hacking my personal email vs the email of someone like President Obama.  I definitely do not have "sensitive" information to lose.  

The SCA is in place to protect people like me, the CFAA deals with more higher profile crimes.  The bigger question is should there be a distinction between hacking my email and hacking Obama's email or should they both be federal crimes?  

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Aug 14 2010, 11:34am | Report

Dantana Love says:

I think that hacking e-mails is the same as stealing snail mail...charges should be laid the same way!

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Aug 14 2010, 12:13pm | Report

adgreen says:

I agree with the above that mail is mail. It doesn't matter the form the delivery takes, mail is mail and should be covered by the same laws.

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Aug 14 2010, 5:38pm | Report

Mel Brady says:

In the application of the law and pushing for a stronger punishment, the prosecutors may have been way over the top. That's something the Appellate Courts will have to decide; assuming her lawyer pursues this. Accessing someone else's email, as she did, she was wrong. There are criminal laws in place without twisting these to suit prosecution purposes. Surely she was nailed for some form of cyber stalking?

Locally, every one of the systems in my home / business use a Warning screen on logon, notifying anyone who decides to use them, any and all activity can and may be monitored for law enforcement and other purposes.

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Aug 14 2010, 7:57pm | Report

mark says:

I think it's time to get tuff with e-mail stealing,I also think it should'nt be so easy to do!

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Aug 15 2010, 1:57am | Report

Tony says:

I agree I had it done to me so I sorted it out by trapping them in to receiving a email  then just changed my email account.

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Aug 15 2010, 2:43am | Report

Frank Krech says:

There should be no difference as to what kind of mail that is taken.  I may not have the same content that a president has but I consider all mail as private and is not to be veiwed by anyone other than the intended person.

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Aug 15 2010, 9:09am | Report

Richard Peters says:

If it is a crime to 'steal' E-Mail then it won't be long before the US Post Office begins charging for every E-Mail sent. After all the government will have to find some way to pay for the prosecution and incarceration of the offenders. Sure lets's get the government involved, I for one am tired of the free internet and all it's services. The involvement of the Federal Government can only make it better for the people.

 

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Aug 15 2010, 1:54pm | Report

Sarah Martin says:

Hacking into someone's e-mail is like opening their USPS mail. No one has the right to open someone else's e-mail or postal mail. Each person should be the one to decide who is to read their mail or not. That is why Postal mail is sealed and e-mail requires a password to get into.

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Aug 15 2010, 4:54pm | Report

Billie Moore says:

Bottom line no matter how you slice it, it is wrong to steal anything, whether it is through the USPS, or someones phone or a grocery store... Anything!  Thou Shalt Not Steal!  Take it up with God, He set the precedence and if He said it, I believe it and that's that!

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Aug 15 2010, 7:21pm | Report

John Kendall says:

Let's look at this from a different stand point.  "Thou shalt not steal!"  Stealing is stealing and it should be looked at the same no matter what the "Media" is.  In the 1800's, if you got caught stealing, they would cut your thumb off with something like a cigar cutter, one is on display at the Alamo in Texas.

In Biblical times, you were taken to the steps of the Temple and "Stoned" to death.  My point is, as time has progressed man has made lesser the crime and so the punishment has become lesser.  Compare today with a hundred years ago and there was less theft back then.  In Biblical times it was even rarer!  Now, I am not saying we should institute the death penality for stealing but several years at hard time would be nice.

Steal my mail and let me catch you and you got big problems, me!  Don't let the pretty face fool you, I am not pretty when I get mad!  You are better off in prisson.

JB

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Aug 15 2010, 8:05pm | Report

Lila Wagner says:

Given the international security issue in India vis a vis RIM the email issue here seems miniscule, but it also looke like the micorcosm is reflected in the macrocosm.

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Aug 15 2010, 9:50pm | Report

Elaine CIoni says:

Did you follow this case to see what that appellate court decided?  Felony or misdemeanor?   What about the conspiracy charge?

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Jun 10 2012, 2:25pm | Report

John Kendall says:

Someone above compared their emails to that of Obama's.  There is no differences between anyone's email, not even Obama's.  He has no greater rights than the lowliest of citizens.  Remember this, "All men are created equal..."  Our rights are posted and they apply the same to all of us, even the president.

Maybe the person above does not send sensitive material but I have and many other have also.  If we look only at our rights as they effect us, we may loose touch with how anyone else may feel about their rights.

Hacking into someone else's email or mail in general is wrong.  The only exceptions I can think this boundary should be broken are:

1. If the person is in prison and suspicion show it is for the security of the whole, then yes.  A person that has committed a crime and is placed in prison, his or her rights are forfeited by law.  (For some uncanny reason this fact has somehow slipped our memories.)

2.  If a person is suspected as a known as a threat to others, especially our national security then, by all means, hack away!

Other than that, hacking is against the law in most cases.  In areas of conflict, they better have all their Is dotted and there Tees crossed.

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Jun 10 2012, 4:01pm | Report

Elaine CIoni says:

First, hacking (using sophisticated computer knowledge to bypass computer language security coding and privacy walls, etc.) and accessing someone's email without authorization (having the password) are two different things. This case is about accessing email without authorization by using the password.

Secondly, accessing someones's email without authorization is WRONG.  No question about that. This discussion is not about whether the conduct is right or wrong.

Thirdly,  the case above was prosecuted as a felony, not a misdemeanor. 

The question posed for this conversation was "Should this case have been prosecuted as a felony or a misdemeanor. The punishment is different felony vs. misdemeanor. Being labeled a felon means you will never work  or vote again.  

Finally:  this case was appealed.   My question is has anyone followed the case to determine the outcome of the appeal? 

 

 

 

 

 

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Jun 11 2012, 6:41am | Report

John Kendall says:

OK, as pointed out, should this case have been prosecuted as a felony or a lessor charge, misdemeanor?

I vote Felony!  She was convicted of Unauthorized Access to...

 

It is a fact that our government will convict you of a Federal Felony if you open Snail-mail without being authorized to do so.  Guess what, e-mail should carry the same punishment.

As for the sentence, BRAVO, they loose their rights.  (By-the-way, they can find employment once they are released.)

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Jun 11 2012, 1:56pm | Report

Elaine CIoni says:

I hear your opinion as a citizen. Let's talk about what congress intended when it created the statute under which she was convicted.  Now, I ask you, what did the federal court of appeals decide?  She was convicted of a felony for accessing the email without authorization.  Did the the appellate court uphold the lower court's decision?  Or was it reduced to a misdemeanor.  

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Jun 11 2012, 7:20pm | Report

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