Georgia Senate Thinks It Can Fix Its Election Security Issues By Criminalizing Password Sharing, Security Research

from the if-you-can't-make-it-better,-at-least-stop-making-it-worse dept

When bad things happen, bad laws are sure to follow. The state of Georgia has been through some tumultuous times, electorally-speaking. After a presidential election plagued with hacking allegations, the Georgia Secretary of State plunged ahead with allegations of his own. He accused the DHS of performing ad hoc penetration testing on his office's firewall. At no point was he informed the DHS might try to breach his system and the DHS, for its part, was less than responsive when questioned about its activities. It promised to get back to the Secretary of State but did not confirm or deny hacking attempts the state had previously opted out of.

To make matter worse, there appeared to be evidence the state's voting systems had been compromised. A misconfigured server left voter records exposed, resulting in a lawsuit against state election officials. Somehow, due to malice or stupidity, a server containing key evidence needed in the lawsuit was mysteriously wiped clean, just days after the lawsuit was filed.

Rather than double down on efforts to secure state voting systems, the state legislature has decided to expand the definition of computer crime. A CFAA but for federalists has been introduced in the state Senate. And it could possibly lead to criminalizing a whole lot of benign computer use.

A new bill winding its way through the Georgia state senate has cybersecurity experts on alert. As Senate Bill 315 is currently written, academics and independent security researchers alike could be subject to prosecution in Georgia alongside malicious hackers.

The two-page bill aims to amend legislation governing computer crimes in the Peach State to criminalize “unauthorized computer access.” It would penalize violations as a “high and aggravated misdemeanor,” with up to a $5,000 fine and year in jail, “any person who accesses a computer or computer network with knowledge that such access is without authority.”

"Unauthorized computer access" is a phrase security researchers hate to see. Much of their valuable work depends on unauthorized access. Criminals and malicious hackers aren't going to knock politely and ask for permission before helping themselves to personally-identifiable information or financial documents. Neither are researchers, who hope to beat criminals at their own game while helping affected entities patch holes and harden existing systems.

But it gets even worse. It's not just security research being criminalized. State senators appear ready to slap cuffs on Netflix users.

The bill also criminalizes terms-of-service violations, which could include infractions as minor as using a pseudonym on Facebook or sharing a password, says a Georgia government lawyer who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

I can see how someone connected to this law might want to remain anonymous. I mean, these are the non-anonymous assertions of named prosecutors who support the bill -- and I'd definitely want to distance myself from those as well.

A representative for Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr declined to comment for this story. In a statement, Carr said Georgia is “one of only three states in the nation where it is not illegal to access a computer, so long as nothing is disrupted or stolen. This doesn’t make any sense. Unlawfully accessing any computer in Georgia should be a crime, and we must fix this loophole."

The AG makes unauthorized access sound so nefarious when, in many cases, it's perfectly harmless. Password sharing gives people technically unlawful access, but letting a few extra people log into an HBO Go account shouldn't be a criminal act. Running a script to scrape publicly-available info from a website may be annoying to the site's owner (and likely forbidden by the terms of service), but it's nothing anyone should be looking at jail time for committing.

The state is still stinging from its election security failures and has decided to take it out on its citizens. It received a second pass in the state Senate before passing but the amendments made were mostly useless. It granted exemptions for parents monitoring their kids' computer use and some badly-worded stuff about "legitimate business activity," but the bill remains a second-rate CFAA just waiting to be abused by zealous prosecutors. And it's going to harm local businesses, which definitely shouldn't have to pay the price for the government's security issues.

“Companies will move divisions elsewhere, and startups will go elsewhere. Likewise, students will search for jobs elsewhere,” Georgia-based independent security researcher Rob Graham says. “It’s insane for legislators wanting to pass legislation that will mess this up.”

This is lawmaking so short-sighted it won't even solve the problem it's supposedly designed to target. The state needs to fix its own security issues before it starts criminalizing security research and password sharing. If it has problems with its election machine vendors, it should take it up with them, rather than burdening constituents with an unnecessary law that lends itself to abuse.

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Filed Under: cfaa, cybersecurity, election security, georgia, hacking, password sharing, security research

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Feb 2018 @ 6:15pm

    Unlawfully accessing any computer in Georgia should be a crime, and we must fix this loophole.

    So, we're just ignoring that by definition, unlawfully accessing a computer is already illegal?

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