President Obama declares war on journalism to combat Snowden-type leaks. Proposes computer hacking law changes to criminalize benign online behavior.
Last October, former National Security Agency (NSA) Director Gen. Keith Alexander gave an interview with the video arm of the Department of Defense in which he slammed reporters who disclosed once-top secret foreign and domestic surveillance programs with the help of a former government contractor gone rogue.
The interview took place four months after The Guardian newspaper exposed the NSA’s bulk telephone records program in which the agency collected data related to every phone call placed and received in the United States. The disclosure was made thanks to Edward Snowden, a former government contractor who contacted journalists at The Guardian and The Washington Post newspapers earlier in the year. It would be one of several stories based on thousands of documents Snowden took during his time at NSA contractor Booz Allen Hamilton that would help thrust the topic of government surveillance into the international spotlight.
Though government officials old and new did their best to assert that the programs were vital to the interests of national security (at least one White House empaneled focus group found that they weren’t), it wouldn’t take long before their frustrations bubbled to the surface. Alexander’s October interview was one such example.
“I think it’s wrong that newspaper reporters have all these documents … it just doesn’t make sense,” a visibly-agitated Alexander said in the Department of Defense video interview. “We ought to come up with a way of stopping it. I don’t know how to do that — that’s more [for] the courts and the policymakers — but, from my perspective, it’s wrong and to allow this to go on is wrong.”
Alexander, and others who have echoed similar sentiment, may soon get their wish thanks in part to an Obama administration-led initiative to toughen cybersecurity laws in the wake of several high-profile computer intrusions — notably, an unprecedented online attack against the computer network of Sony Pictures Entertainment this past Christmas.
Last week, the White House released a draft version of a proposed amendment to the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, the federal anti-hacking law that makes it a crime to access a computer system without authorization.
Among other things, the Obama administration is proposing changing the law that would make it a crime for an individual or group to access “information” from a protected computer “that the accessor knows is not authorized by the computer owner.” It would also seek to incorporate computer crimes under federal anti-racketeering laws that would penalize individuals or groups who communicate or otherwise associate with computer hackers, and would give police the ability to seize computer hardware and other equipment under civil forfeiture laws from those accused of associating with such hackers, even if there’s little to no evidence to suggest a person had committed any crime.
Security experts warn that if such amendments were allowed to take effect, it could criminalize benign online activity. Things like re-tweeting a link to a dump of usernames and passwords or to a news article based on information leaked by hackers could be punishable by up to 10 years in prison if federal prosecutors chose to use the broad law to that advantage.