Supreme Court Leaves Troubling CFAA Rulings In Place: Sharing Passwords Can Be Criminal Hacking

from the congress-fix-this-shit dept

For many, many years now, we’ve talked about problems with the CFAA — the Computer Fraud & Abuse Act — which was passed in Congress in the 1980s in response to the Hollywood movie War Games (seriously). It was a messed up moral panic back then, and over the years it’s been abused widely in both civil and criminal cases to define almost anything as hacking. Over the past few years we’ve been following two cases in particular related to the CFAA: the David Nosal case and the Power.com case. Both involved fairly twisted interpretations of the CFAA — and, unfortunately, the 9th Circuit found both to be okay. And, unfortunately, this week, the Supreme Court declined to review both cases, meaning they remain good (if stupid) law in the 9th Circuit (which will likely influence cases elsewhere).

I won’t go into all of the background in both cases, but the super short version is that under the Facebook v. Power ruling, it’s a CFAA violation for a service to access a website — even if at the request of users — if the website has sent a cease-and-desist. That shouldn’t be seen as hacking, but the court said it’s “unauthorized access.” Power was a service that tried to help consolidate different social networks into a single user interface for users — and lots of people found that valuable and signed up for the service. But, Facebook didn’t like it and sent a cease-and-desist to Power. Power figured that since users were asking it to continue and they were the ones who had the accounts, it was okay to continue. The court, unfortunately, claimed that it was a CFAA violation — the equivalent of “hacking” into a system (despite having legit credentials) just because of the cease-and-desist.

In the Nosal case, the court said that merely sharing your passwords can be a CFAA violation. In that case a guy looking to compete with his old firm had someone still there share a password so he could log in and get customer info. That may be unethical and problematic — but should it be the equivalent of computer hacking? While the 9th Circuit had rejected an even broader interpretation of the CFAA that would say merely violating a terms of service became “unauthorized access” it said okay to the password sharing one.

There was some hope that the Supreme Court would hear these cases and explain that these rulings stretched the CFAA to dangerous degrees. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.

And so we’re back where we’ve been for a few decades now: talking about why Congress needs to reform the CFAA and fix these problems that leave the law wide open to abuse — especially in an era where so many people use dozens of services, and sometimes do things like share passwords or ask others to log into sites for them. These should never be seen as “hacking” violations, but in the 9th Circuit, they are.

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Companies: facebook, power

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Comments on “Supreme Court Leaves Troubling CFAA Rulings In Place: Sharing Passwords Can Be Criminal Hacking”

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31 Comments
Paul Brinker (profile) says:

Social Hacking

Not saying this guy was good or bad, but the concept of social hacking is as old as hacking. In this case he used social engineering instead of cracking to get into the company system but the concept is as old as hacking itself.

Social hacking is and is not the same as sharing your Netflix account, the distinction however is a very gray area but you could generally say the public vs private nature of the networks. His employer network was only open to employees, a closed group of people, with gateways and other things put in place to prevent unauthorized access.

Netflix on the other hand is a public network designed to give access to anyone willing to pay the gatekeeper.

Realistically the guy who gave him the password should be the one in trouble, breach of contract for giving someone his password.

Almost Anonymous says:

Re: Social Hacking

I’m really torn on that one. I think they should both be in trouble, the inside man for contributing (similarly to a getaway driver), and the outside man for unauthorized access. Should it be called “hacking”? Probably not… but let’s say he did the exact same thing by using some script-kiddie brute-force technique to get in, versus his buddy sharing a password. I guess that can be called “hacking”?

Anyway, we probably shouldn’t focus so much on the word “hacking”, as much as that this dude was illegally accessing data he wasn’t supposed to be.

MyNameHere (profile) says:

Troubling?

I often find that you feel that the courts applying the law is troubling. These two cases are both perfect examples of why that law fits almost exactly.

Facebook v. Power is incredibly simple: Given that they had already received a cease and desist, any action beyond that is (a) a violation of that C&D, and (b) unauthorized access to their system. While it may not be a hack in the sense of forcing a password or other, they did access the system and retrieve information that they were specifically C&D’ed from doing. Seems pretty clear.

The Nosal case is even easier: There is no reason for the guy to share the password from his previous job with anyone except with bad intentions. In sharing the password and having someone else enter the system for him, he effectively entered into a conspiracy to illegally access the system. Nosal himself didn’t do the work, but made the most significant contribution to someone illegally accessing the system.

What is troubling to me is that you seem not to be able to understand the difference from voluntary and involuntary actions. In both of these cases, we are well beyond a simple violation of a terms of service, in each case the defendants made voluntary actions that ended up in unauthorized access. Each of them had to do something well beyond just violating terms of service to get there. Nosal had to intentionally give out a password to his ex-employer’s system, and Power had to willfully ignore a C&D.

Simply put, neither of these would have been good cases to take to SCOTUS, because both of them are clearly in the wrong, and the statute in plain text covers it.

orbitalinsertion (profile) says:

Re: Troubling?

Anyone simply saying “cease and desist” to anything does not make it a valid or remotely legally binding utterance. It takes idiots to misapply laws to rule that a) the c&d is valid, and b) it constitutes criminal behavior under a ridiculously stretched interpretation of an already bad law.

So, say, when someone tells you to shove off, but you keep showing up anyway, does that mean you should end up in prison?

Rekrul says:

Re: Troubling?

Facebook v. Power is incredibly simple: Given that they had already received a cease and desist, any action beyond that is (a) a violation of that C&D, and (b) unauthorized access to their system. While it may not be a hack in the sense of forcing a password or other, they did access the system and retrieve information that they were specifically C&D’ed from doing. Seems pretty clear.

So websites can put anything they like in the terms of service and people are legally obligated to follow them?

BTW, my terms of service are that if you want to reply to this message, you must do so while naked and your body covered in lime-green Jello. I’ll need a photo as proof, otherwise you’ll be committing a crime under the CFAA.

MyNameHere (profile) says:

Re: Re: Troubling?

“So websites can put anything they like in the terms of service and people are legally obligated to follow them?”

Umm, no.

T&C must be legal and proper, generally the public cannot be forced to waive their rights to get service.

However, that said, a website is a private company, and they do have the rights to set (within the law) the rule by which they offer service. Facebook is well within their rights to say “you may not share your password in any manner” and yes, to some extent they can specify how you can connect to their service (web browser, app, etc).

The rest of your post is nonsense.

Bergman (profile) says:

Re: Troubling?

A C&D has no legal weight, MNH. I could send you a C&D for anything, even order you to not post to Techdirt, and violating it would not cause you to lose an ensuing lawsuit.

Masnick himself could issue you a C&D to stop visiting Techdirt’s site and reading the articles, but as long as the side makes them available upon request, then there is no unauthorized access.

Kathy says:

Re: Troubling?

What is troubling to be is that you barely understand what happened here. “Nosal had to intentionally give out a password to his ex-employer’s system”. Uh, Nosal did not give out anything. He was long gone from KF and he tapped his old admin, a woman incidentally since all of the posters here keep citing “the guy”, to give his new IT guy her password so they could access the database directly. This was because the admin was too slow and stupid and they became frustrated with her ineptness so they lifted the data directly by using her password.

Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

I won’t go into all of the background in both cases, but the super short version is that under the Facebook v. Power ruling, it’s a CFAA violation for a service to access a website — even if at the request of users — if the website has sent a cease-and-desist. That shouldn’t be seen as hacking, but the court said it’s "unauthorized access." Power was a service that tried to help consolidate different social networks into a single user interface for users — and lots of people found that valuable and signed up for the service. But, Facebook didn’t like it and sent a cease-and-desist to Power. Power figured that since users were asking it to continue and they were the ones who had the accounts, it was okay to continue. The court, unfortunately, claimed that it was a CFAA violation — the equivalent of "hacking" into a system (despite having legit credentials) just because of the cease-and-desist.

I actually don’t see any problem with that. How is it any different than a person running a brick-and-mortar business telling someone they aren’t welcome there? Once you’ve said that, if they don’t leave, or if they come back, you are within your rights to call the cops on them for tresspassing, and if they said "well I’m here on behalf of someone else who does have the right to be here," that’s not going to get them anywhere. So why should this case be treated differently?

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