New Book About Data Mining To Find Love Online Has Author Admit To Possible CFAA Violations

from the seems-like-that's-a-problem dept

There's a new book out called Data, A Love Story by Amy Webb, in which she talks about how she gamed online dating sites. If you look at an account from the Washington Post, an excerpt at the Huffington Post and another excerpt at Slate, Webb discusses openly how she set up a ton of fake profiles on the online dating site JDate. Here's an example:
After figuring out just who she's seeking, Webb rejoins JDate, the Jewish dating site, as a man — creating 10 profiles for men she would want to date, with stock images and character sketches so elaborate you'd think she were outlining a novel. For example, we learn from the spreadsheet she makes for LawMan2346 that he and his younger brother, Mark, "didn't get along great as kids, but they're best friends now. Mark is the total opposite of him — plays sports, drinks beer. Typical man's man kind of guy."

But she's not Catfishing, she's doing opposition research. For a month, she corresponds with 96 female JDaters through these fake profiles, never meeting these women but interacting just enough to collect data (more spreadsheets!) on how they present themselves. Then, she can mimic her competitors and hopefully snag a better catch.
Interesting approach, I guess. Having met my wife through more traditional means at a time when online dating was in its infancy, I can only imagine the difficulty in successfully using those tools today. So, the appeal of "opposition research" and fake accounts for testing certainly must seem appealing. At the very least, it probably makes good fodder for a book... as it obviously did in this case.

But here's the problem. As we've been discussing, under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), it's possible that she committed multiple felonies, and could face jail time. Now, let's be clear: no one has charged her with this and it's doubtful that anyone will. But in an age where we're finally starting to realize that perhaps we need to change and fix the CFAA, it's helpful to point out examples of how the law could easily be twisted.

Let's start with JDate's terms and conditions of service. There are a few clauses I want to call out. The first is in the "Registration and Subscription" section, in which it notes:
You agree to provide accurate, current and complete information about Yourself as prompted by Our registration form ("Registration Data"), and to maintain and update Your information to keep it accurate, current and complete."
In the "Proprietary Rights" section, it notes:
You represent and warrant to Us that the information posted in Your profile, including Your photograph, is posted by You and that You are the exclusive author of Your profile and the exclusive owner of Your photographs. You assign to Us, with full title guarantee, all copyright in Your profile, Your photographs posted, and any additional information sent to Us at any time in connection with Your use of the Service.
In the section "Your use of the service" it notes:
You will not post on the Service, or transmit to other members or to Us or Our employees, any defamatory, inaccurate, abusive, obscene, profane, offensive, sexually oriented, threatening, harassing, racially offensive, or illegal material, or any material that infringes or violates another party's rights
And also the following:
You will not harass or impersonate any person or entity. You will not use any manual or automatic device or process to retrieve, index, data mine, or, in any way reproduce or circumvent the navigational structure or presentation of the Service or its contents.
Now, you could make a case that in setting up ten completely fake profiles, including stock images, and then data mining the results of the women who communicated with those profiles, that she violated at least some, and possibly all of the clauses called out above.

Courts are not entirely in agreement on this, but certainly some courts have said that violating the terms of service of a website can potentially violate the CFAA (there are other factors that matter too). Even if we just look at the clauses of the CFAA that were used against Aaron Swartz, you could see how some (though not all) might apply to Webb as well. There's (a)(2)(c): intentionally accessing a computer without authorization or exceeding authorized access and thereby obtains information from any protected computer. There's (a)(4): knowingly and with intent to defraud, accessed a protected computer without authorization or by exceeding authorized access, and by means of such conduct furthers the intended fraud and obtains anything of value (as long as the thing of value is more than $5,000). Obviously, much of this is open to interpretation, but would you put it past a federal prosecutor arguing that Webb "knowingly and with intent to defraud" by "exceeding authorized access" obtained information and then obtained something of value more than $5,000? As the book reveals, Webb used these methods to meet her eventual husband. Is a husband something of value worth more than $5,000? Yes, perhaps it's a stretch, but... is it so much of a stretch that you couldn't see someone making the argument?

If you wanted to take it to even more ridiculous and extreme levels, you could argue that her "opposition research" may have enabled her to find a husband faster, thereby "cheating" JDate out of possible profits from keeping her as a paying customer for longer. Again, a long shot, but not a completely implausible reading.

And, again, if we can make the case that the value of the information she obtained by data mining these fake profiles exceeded $5,000 in value, then she has possibly set herself up for felony charges -- with maximum imprisonment of five years.

Would a court ever go that far? Almost certainly not. But given the lack of prosecutorial discretion we've seen in other cases, including many CFAA cases, is that something that really should be left to the prosecutors' and judges' discretion? Hopefully not.

Of course, no reasonable person thinks that Webb should be charged with anything for her activities, and it's not going to happen. But shouldn't we take a seriously look at fixing the law that makes it so that it's even possible she could have faced such charges?


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
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    Ninja (profile), Feb 14th, 2013 @ 8:16am

    Well,would you believe a young man could be charged with multiple felony stances and face over 30 years in jail for downloading a lot of documents from an open university network before Aaron Swartz made it to the spotlight?

    Me neither. So yes, the law is sorely in need of fixing.

     

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  2.  
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    arcan, Feb 14th, 2013 @ 8:59am

    i think she is fine, i am guessing this JDate doesn't fund anyone's election campaign.

     

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  3.  
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    Vidiot (profile), Feb 14th, 2013 @ 9:02am

    Funny... I heard the author interviewed, and wondered the same thing; although more from an ethical/creeper-factor standpoint.

     

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  4.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 14th, 2013 @ 9:04am

    Geez Mike, are you trying to drive this poor woman to suicide?

     

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  5.  
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    Almost Anonymous (profile), Feb 14th, 2013 @ 9:14am

    Just thought I'd mention

    If you wanted to take it to even more ridiculous and extreme levels, you could argue that her "opposition research" may have enabled her to find a husband faster, thereby "cheating" JDate out of possible profits from keeping her as a paying customer for longer. Again, a long shot, but not a completely implausible reading.

    Mike, there is no level too ridiculous or extreme that a career prosecutor won't go to. And defending business models seems to be the new goal of many US govt agencies...

     

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  6.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 14th, 2013 @ 9:15am

    The danger if the CFAA is that it can be used against those who criticise the government. So it is probably safe to break terms of service if you do not engage in political protest, otherwise such action gives the state a means of attacking a person.

     

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  7.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 14th, 2013 @ 9:21am

    uh, this woman blatantly circumvented TOS, and is a first class creep. I'm glad there are laws to protect me from people like this.

     

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  8.  
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    stryx, Feb 14th, 2013 @ 9:29am

    I want to see

    the A/ B testing results

     

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  9.  
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    weneedhelp (profile), Feb 14th, 2013 @ 9:31am

    Amy Webb

    Attention single males, if you come across a girl named Amy Webb, RUN FAST, RUN FAR, JUST RUN!!!!

     

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  10.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 14th, 2013 @ 9:32am

    If Carmen Ortiz, catches wind of this she'll get the electric chair.

     

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  11.  
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    Mike Masnick (profile), Feb 14th, 2013 @ 9:32am

    Re:

    uh, this woman blatantly circumvented TOS, and is a first class creep. I'm glad there are laws to protect me from people like this.

    Sounds like we found someone who got fooled by her...

    More seriously, though: you really think jailtime is appropriate for this?

     

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  12.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 14th, 2013 @ 9:42am

    Someone should set up one of those whitehouse.gov petitions to have her charged.

     

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  13.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 14th, 2013 @ 9:43am

    Well, at least the attorney general will not be going after her since he has others more pressing matters to attend to like his contempt of congress :)

     

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  14.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 14th, 2013 @ 9:43am

    It's not that jail's appropriate, it's that only by making examples of people will the law's injustice will be recognized by the public at large.

     

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  15.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 14th, 2013 @ 9:47am

    Re:

    She should just follow the example of the US attorney general Eric Holder and lie, lie, lie and then lie some more for good measure and then get caught and get a slap in the wrist by being found in contempt of congress.

     

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  16.  
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    John Doe, Feb 14th, 2013 @ 9:50am

    Re: Re:

    Even more seriously, does he really think laws "protect" him? They do not erect a physical barrier of protection, they only provide for punishment after the fact.

     

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  17.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 14th, 2013 @ 9:52am

    Whoa. Whoa. Time out.
    You assign to Us, with full title guarantee, all copyright in Your profile, Your photographs posted, and any additional information sent to Us at any time in connection with Your use of the Service.

    That's not even standard boilerplate universal-non-exclusive-transferable-license language. That is straight up assignment.
    Given people's tendency to ignore and dismiss TOS agreements, this seems especially dangerous.

     

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  18.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 14th, 2013 @ 9:59am

    > $5000

    Hmmm... she wrote a book based on the data she acquired via this right? And she's selling the book right? Did she get a book publishing deal in excess of $5000? If not what if her revenues from the book exceed $5000? Does that count?

     

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  19.  
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    ME, Feb 14th, 2013 @ 10:01am

    Yet another twttiodt.

     

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  20.  
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    Lord Binky, Feb 14th, 2013 @ 10:23am

    Re: Re: Re:

    Well, since she has already done this, and there is no information of how many others possibly could be doing this, there are not any laws that are 'protecting' anyone from it. Protecting people at the very least would require anything she did to be undone, which short of a secret government time machine isn't reasonable.

     

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  21.  
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    Lord Binky, Feb 14th, 2013 @ 10:28am

    I think the scary part is that this is just a law that was only meant to be a catch-all. It is only applied when you are already targeted and they just want another set of felonies to throw at you for good measure, or maybe they just want to harm you for whatever justification they find including up to trivial justifications of 'I am just bored'.

     

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  22.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 14th, 2013 @ 11:03am

    WOULD YOU WANT TO DATE A WOMAN LIKE THIS?

     

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  23.  
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    Robert Doyle (profile), Feb 14th, 2013 @ 11:14am

    The book

    I hope they throw the book at her... the book of Love!

    :P

     

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  24.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 14th, 2013 @ 12:56pm

    Re:

    The scarier part is that some doofus she met using this technique apparently not only dated her but MARRIED her eventually. How screwed up is that? He had to know how manipulative she was at that point.

     

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  25.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 14th, 2013 @ 1:11pm

    Re: Amy Webb

    What if I'm really into spreadsheets?

     

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  26.  
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    Anonymous, Feb 14th, 2013 @ 2:15pm

    It's all fake. If you want love, get a cat.
    If you want and believe in romance, put a tooth under your pillow and make a wish on a star before you go to bed. You'll do just as well. And if that doesn't work, write a letter to Santa Claus and maybe he'll bring you that "special someone". HA!

     

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  27.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 14th, 2013 @ 2:37pm

    Re: Amy Webb

    The same with a heartless b*tch convicted felon named Terrah Christine Brown. She's a user (in more ways than one) and a scammer. But what else could one expect from a convicted druggie and thief like Terrah?

     

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  28.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 14th, 2013 @ 6:31pm

    I stopped caring about felonies when I read the fine print on the back of a can of Lysol. Since I don't use a ruler to make sure the can is exactly 6 to 8 inches away from whatever I'm spraying, I've probably committed hundreds of felonies over the years.

    Laws don't matter. The only thing that matters is how you being attacked would affect politicians. If I was sent to jail for not using a ruler while spraying Lysol, the people responsible would be a laughingstock, and they know it, so I'm not in jail. If some politico thinks imprisoning Amy Webb would be a feather in their cap, she's as good as incarcerated, laws or no laws.

    Granted, that the powers that be used to at least try to look like they were upholding the law, since if they acted "above the law" they'd be giving their rivals political ammo. But it seems there's now an armistice on that front: these days if you write or enforce laws, you're above them by default.

     

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  29.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 14th, 2013 @ 7:04pm

    Heh I've trolled such sites far worse than she could ever dream of. Well not so much anymore but years ago when I was in my teens I did find this sort of thing very fun.

    Get someone on the hook drag them along then send a updated picture with a weight gain of 400 pounds. Then I would go make some popcorn kick back and wait for the hate mail.

     

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  30.  
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    tech, Feb 15th, 2013 @ 8:20am

    Heh I've trolled such sites far worse than she could ever dream of. Well not so much anymore but years ago when I was in my teens I did find this sort of thing very fun.

     

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  31.  
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    Anonymous Coward, May 18th, 2013 @ 4:33pm

    dating

    this why i dont trust online dating, theres a lot of ways to make the other person to believe who you are representing but theres only few ways to prove who they really are. meeting them in person which is very risky if the person is a psycho and making them show you their government issued id but still sometimes can be fake too lol... just try to make or find your dates in a natural, ask your friends to set you up for a date, go to the park be active hoping youll meet someone in the way

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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