EFF, ACLU Asks Ninth Circuit Court To Rehear Two Recent CFAA Cases
from the let's-not-criminalize-even-MORE-common-activity dept
The EFF and ACLU are pushing the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to hold full en banc rehearings (with all 11 judges, rather than just three) of two recent CFAA-related cases. The first case, US v. Nosal, is the more (in)famous of the two. In this decision, the court read the language of the CFAA broadly enough to criminalize a mostly-harmless everyday activity participated in by thousands of Americans: password sharing.
The court tried to couple this with some “authorization” wording to make it appear as though the court wouldn’t entertain frivolous prosecutions using interpretation of the CFAA, but that gives the court (and the DOJ) far more credit than they have earned.
The other case — Facebook v. Power Ventures — is dangerous in its own way, even if it involves two private companies, rather than the US government’s prosecutorial arm. The same appeals court didn’t go quite as far as it did in the Nosal decision in terms of criminalizing password sharing, but instead made the district’s stance even more confusing by arriving at a seemingly-contradictory conclusion.
The Ninth Circuit found that Power Ventures violated the CFAA when it accessed Facebook’s data after receiving the cease and desist letter, on the ground that the letter gave the company notice that Facebook had revoked its authorization to access users’ Facebook accounts. The court acknowledged that Facebook users could give Power Ventures valid authorization to access their accounts without running into a CFAA violation—the step back from Nosal II’s blanket criminalization of password sharing. That was true even though Facebook’s terms of service expressly prohibit password sharing or letting anyone else use your account.
“Seemingly” is the key word. The conclusion reached by the three-judge panel finds no bright line for determining authorized access, instead opting for a reading that leaves it all up to the party moving forward with a lawsuit/prosecution. Here’s Mike attempting to make some sense of the ruling:
At what point is access revoked? Does it require a full cease and desist letter? Or what if I add a drop-down telling visitors from certain IP addresses they’re not welcome? What if I just type here that visitors from the state of New York are no longer allowed to visit Techdirt? If they continue to do so, is that a potential CFAA violation in the making? The same court has already ruled that a mere terms of service violation is not a CFAA violation but where’s the line between a terms of service violation and a cease-and-desist letter? Or me just telling you to stop visiting my website? It seems wide open to abuse.
At best, the decisions — when taken together — are an incoherent mess. At worst, they’re vehicles for bogus lawsuits and prosecutions, taking the CFAA even further away from its original intent: to punish malicious hackers/criminals who break into accounts, servers, etc. So, rather than activity simply being a violation of corporate policies and Terms of Service, it’s now also a potential violation of federal law. The Ninth Circuit Appeals Court has, in two decisions, created a hefty, new CFAA book to be thrown at violators, who now might see themselves facing federal prosecution, rather than a writeup in their personnel file or a suspended account.
If nothing else, a full en banc hearing would at least hopefully generate a coherent, more-unified stance from the Appeals Court. The two decisions are not polar opposites, but there is some friction. The downside, of course, is that the full panel will create an even worse interpretation of the CFAA. But, even if so, at least those residing in the Ninth Circuit will know where they stand when it comes to “authorized” access, password sharing, etc.