Frenchman Fined For 'Theft' And 'Fraudulent Retention' For Finding Health Docs Via A Google Search

from the le-cluelessness dept

The basic downloading tool Wget is much in the news at the moment, and here's another story where it plays a central role. The French blogger and activist Olivier Laurelli, also known by his Twitter name Bluetouff, was searching on Google for something else when he spotted an interesting link that turned out to lead to several gigabytes of internal documents held on the French National Agency for Food Safety, Environment, and Labor's extranet (ANSES in French). Ars Technica explains what happened next:

Laurelli merely used the Linux Wget tool to download all of the contents of the Web directory that he found. He left the files on his drive for a few days and then transferred them to his desktop for more convenient reading (which the French government would later spin as "the accused made backup copies of the documents he had stolen"). A few days later, Laurelli searched through the documents he downloaded and sent some to a fellow … writer [on the activist news site Reflets.info], Yovan Menkevick. About two weeks later, a few interesting scientific slides pertaining to nano-substances from the cache were published on Laurelli's site.
When ANSES discovered this, it reported what it called "potential intrusion" and "data theft" to the police. Then France's Central Directorate of Interior Intelligence (DCRI in French) became involved. The lower court that heard the case decided Laurelli should not be punished for accessing data that was not secure; ANSES was happy to let it go at that, but DCRI appealed.

It was clear that things would not go well in the appeals court when the presiding judge seemed not to know even how to pronounce "Google " or "login" -- he said "Googluh" and "lojin" (original in French.) The prosecutor was just as bad: he started off his speech by admitting "I didn't even understand half the terms I heard today." Ars Technica reports the denouement of this high-tech French farce as follows:

The appeals court acquitted Laurelli of fraudulently accessing an information system but saw fit to convict Bluetouff of theft of documents and fraudulent retention of information. The court wrote: "It is well demonstrated that he was conscious of his irregular retention in automated data processing, accessed where he downloaded protected evidence; and that investigations have shown that these data had been downloaded before being... disseminated to others; that it is, in any event, established that Olivier Laurelli made copies of computer files inaccessible to the public for personal use without the knowledge and against the will of its owner"
Leaving aside the fact that the appeals court was clearly ill-equipped to understand the technical issues involved, and that the original files were completely unprotected and found by Google's crawler, not Laurelli, there is another disquieting aspect to this affair. Alongside his writing and activism, Laurelli also runs a small computer security company. One of the services it offers is a standard VPN. He was using this VPN service when he accessed the ANSES site, and the fact that his connection was routed via Panama -- the VPN's exit node -- counted heavily against him, he believes:

"This VPN (in fact above all this Panamanian IP address) is probably one of the strongest elements which had driven the prosecution to pursue a criminal case," he wrote.
VPNs represent one of the few tools available to ordinary Internet users to help them bolster their security and privacy against global surveillance. It's deeply troubling that the mere fact of using a VPN to access a Web site was apparently viewed by the court as evidence of criminal intent, rather than simply good online practice in the post-Snowden world.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca, and +glynmoody on Google+

Filed Under: anses, bluetouff, documents, france, liability, olivier laurelli, retention, search, security, theft, wget


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  1. icon
    aldestrawk (profile), 11 Feb 2014 @ 9:33am

    Re: Re: Re:

    My comment about the Google bot was rhetorical. Of course, it is not up to the web spiders, or the companies that build them, to try to figure out if the builders of the website really wanted a page to be public or not. Outside of the convention of robots.txt, if a bot can read a page then it gets read, indexed, and cached. If ANSES had done the authentication and authorization correctly they wouldn't even need to use robots.txt.
    My point was that it is equally absurd to penalize a person who reads and caches a webpage that has no effective protection against unauthorized persons reading it. There is a cultural assumption that pages on the Internet are for public consumption unless there is some technical method which prevents straightforward navigation and reading. This is contrary to the usual trespassing analogies where the cultural assumption is that a place is private property and you are trespassing unless you have explicit permission.

    Here, we have a situation where attempted webpage protection was completely ineffective. This allowed Google, and any other bot or human, to read, index, and cache a large set of pages that were intended to be private. You can't punish someone for doing a search and then reading the resulting webpages that are unprotected. Laurelli is being punished because, after reading those pages, he travels back to the home page and sees that ANSES intended those pages to be accessible only after logging in. This is very screwed up justice and I will dare to offer this trespassing analogy:

    Suppose you have a park in the US which seems to be public. You walk into the park, wander around, and then leave through the main entrance. At this entrance you turn around and there is a sign, in Russian, which says "no trespassing". Is the government only going to prosecute those trespassers who can speak Russian?

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