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Recent cases highlight the harshness of Internet crime laws

Baton Rouge residents may have read recently about several cases involving individuals charged with violations of the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. The law was passed in 1984 in an effort to curb hacking and white collar crimes, but proponents of Internet freedom say it provisions are too broad and its penalties too harsh.

Earlier this month, a prominent social media editor for a news organization was charged under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act for allegedly sharing a computer network password with the hacker collective Anonymous. Someone used the information to hack into a newspaper website and change the headline on an online article in a relatively simple prank. The newspaper quickly corrected the problem, although it said it had to spend $5,000 to upgrade its security. In contrast, the charges against the editor could cost him $750,000 in fines and up to 25 years in prison.

Earlier this year, a 26-year-old advocate for computer freedom committed suicide while he was facing federal prosecution for hacking into an archive of scholarly reports. Also recently, a self-described computer "troll" was sentenced to more than three years in prison for accessing unprotected AT&T data that tracked Apple iPad users and turning over their e-mail addresses to a website.

Analysts say that the threat of severe penalties is necessary to dissuade others who might want to hack into private or government computers. They say that prosecutors go for the maximum penalties available in order to make an example of defendants in high-profile cases, while most defendants will face much lighter punishments.

Nonetheless, all those charged with Internet crimes must take their defense very seriously. The laws on Internet crimes are extremely harsh and prosecutors can be very aggressive in going after those accused of the crimes.

Source: New York Times, "Hacker Case Leads to Calls for Better Law," Amy Chozick and Charlie Savage, March 17, 2013

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