The last time Congress passed a sweeping electronic privacy law, the Berlin Wall was standing, Reagan was cracking down on drugs, and cassette tapes—playing Men at Work and Duran Duran—were all the rage. More than 25 years later, there are more than a few '80s-era laws on the books governing the use of technology that didn't even exist when the legislation was written. As Americans place an increasing amount of personal data in social networks, cellphones, and email accounts, privacy advocates say that it's irresponsible not to update these laws to reflect changing technology. Here's a sampling of some of the nation's most outdated tech laws:
The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act
This anti-hacking law was birthed in 1984 by a bunch of lawmakers freaked out over the movie WarGames—a clip was shown during congressional testimony—in which a teenaged hacker played by Matthew Broderick accidentally brings the United States and the Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear war.
Today, the law's broad language can technically be used to prosecute internet users for offenses that seem downright silly. Under the CFAA, it's illegal to "knowingly [access] a computer without authorization" and obtain information from a "protected computer." Here's the problem: The way you get authorization to access most web sites is to agree to a company's terms of service (that check-box you click when you sign up for an account). The CFAA allows the feds to bring criminal charges against users who break companies' terms of service, meaning that a person could face jail time, not simply a fine, for what's essentially a civil disagreement. In other words, a user of the dating site eHarmony who lies about his or her marital status is technically breaking federal law, since its terms of service read:
By requesting to use, registering to use, or using the Singles Service, you represent and warrant that you are not married. If you are separated, but not yet legally divorced, you may not request to use, register to use, or use the Singles Service…You will not provide inaccurate, misleading or false information to eHarmony or to any other user.
The law also allows the government to charge people who violate the CFAA twice for the same crime—under federal and state law—which leads to the kind of sentence faced by internet activist Aaron Swartz, who was threatened with 35 years in prison under the CFAA for allegedly stealing mass amounts of academic articles with the intention of releasing them for free to the public. Swartz committed suicide before his case went to trial. In June, a bill called Aaron's Law was introduced in the House and Senate. It would reform CFAA by fixing the terms-of-service issue—simply violating the terms would no longer be a crime; instead, a hacker would have to actually break a technological barrier (like cracking a password)—and it would also prevent users from being charged twice for the same crime.
"When the government has access to your communications records for a period of up to five years, it creates a chilling effect on your willingness to participate in political discourse and join political groups," Cindy Cohn, legal director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said in a press call on Tuesday. EFF also sued the NSA in 2008 over the Bush Administration's warrantless wiretapping program—a case that has yet to be resolved.
The plaintiffs allege that through the NSA's tracking program, "defendants...continue to collect, acquire, and retain, bulk communications information of telephone calls made and received by plaintiffs, their members and staffs. This information is otherwise private." They also claim that the collection of this information was "neither relevant to an existing authorized criminal investigation, nor to an existing authorized investigation to protect against international terrorism." The charges are being brought as violations to the First, Fourth and Fifth Amendments, among other laws.
The Director of National Intelligence, Keith Alexander—who is also listed on the suit—testified last month that the NSA's surveillance program has helped stopped more than 50 terror plots since 9/11. The NSA maintains that the only information that has been collected through phone surveillance is basic information called metadata, which includes information like which numbers made and received a call, when it took place, and how long it lasted.
At the call on Tuesday, representatives for the groups said that even though the coalition comes from across the political spectrum, they have one big thing in common: They feel their First Amendment rights are being squashed. Reverend Rick Hoyt from the First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles noted that the church played an important role in fighting hysteria during the McCarthy years, and he sees this as more of the same: "We're very aware how organizations can be affected by government surveillance...we want to make sure our current church members feel they have the right to associate with this church." Gene Hoffman, chairman of The Calguns Foundation, which fights gun control laws, said his members are "definitely" hesitant about calling his organization because of surveillance concerns. "It's common to have caller-ID block for our members even before this [came out.]"
Shahid Buttar, the executive director of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, a civil rights organization that fights to end racial profiling, notes, "A lot of our members have had concerns about these kinds of activities happening for a long time, they've been dismissed for years by the broader public as paranoia... The people who suspected they were being watched, until now, couldn't prove it."
The Central Intelligence Agency is funding a scientific study that will investigate whether humans could use geoengineering to alter Earth's environment and stop climate change. The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) will run the 21-month project, which is the first NAS geoengineering study financially supported by an intelligence agency. With the spooks' money, scientists will study how humans might influence weather patterns, assess the potential dangers of messing with the climate, and investigate possible national security implications of geoengineering attempts.
The total cost of the project is $630,000, which NAS is splitting with the CIA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and NASA. The NAS website says that "the US intelligence community" is funding the project, and William Kearney, a spokesman for NAS, told Mother Jones that phrase refers to the CIA. Edward Price, a spokesman for the CIA, refused to confirm the agency's role in the study, but said, "It's natural that on a subject like climate change the Agency would work with scientists to better understand the phenomenon and its implications on national security." The CIA reportedly closed its research center on climate change and national security last year, after GOP members of Congress argued that the CIA shouldn't be looking at climate change.
The goal of the CIA-backed NAS study is to conduct a "technical evaluation of a limited number of proposed geoengineering techniques," according to the NAS website. Scientists will attempt to determine which geoengineering techniques are feasible and try to evaluate the impacts and risks of each (including "national security concerns"). One proposed geoengineering method the study will look at is solar radiation management—a fancy term for pumping particles into the stratosphere to reflect incoming sunlight away from the planet. In theory, solar radiation management could lead to a global cooling trend that might reverse, or at least slow down, global warming. The study will also investigate proposals for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Most state legislatures have packed it up after this year's session. But four states have been quite busy in their closing weeks trying to pass last-minute anti-abortion legislation.
Texas has gotten the most attention, after Gov. Rick Perry called a special session to pass new regulations on abortion, but Sen. Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth) staged a dramatic filibuster and managed to run out the clock before the bill could pass. But then Perry called another special session to make sure it would pass.
Not to be outdone, Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Ohio have advanced anti-abortion bills in the past few weeks. Most of these states didn't even qualify a few months ago for the March Madness bracket on the most anti-choice state, which shows just how many state legislatures passed new regulations this year alone.
Here's the gist of what's happened in the past few weeks:
The state Senate here drew criticism last week for attaching anti-abortion measures to a bill banning Shariah law in the state without allowing time for comment from the public or medical professionals. Even the state's Republican governor, Pat McCrory, criticized the process used to pass the anti-abortion bill. When McCrory threatened to veto the bill, House members instead tried to attach the abortion regulations to a motorcycle safety bill on Wednesday. The measures include new licensing requirements for abortion providers and require a doctor to be present for the administration of abortion drugs.
While everyone was watching Texas, Ohio's Republican governor, John Kasich, signed a budget bill into law that included a number of measures to make it much more difficult to provide abortions in the state. That includes barring public hospitals from making agreements with abortion clinics to accept their patients in case of emergencies (clinics are required to have these transfer agreements in order to get a license). The budget bill also subjects doctors to criminal penalties if they don't test for a fetal heartbeat and tell women about the likelihood that they could carry the fetus to term; moves Planned Parenthood providers to the bottom of the list in its distribution of federal family planning funds; and threatens to take away funding for rape crisis centers that counsel clients that abortion is an option should they become pregnant as a result of rape.
Republican Gov. Scott Walker signed a bill into law last Friday that requires doctors who perform abortions in the state to have admitting privileges at a local hospital. This type of law has been used in other states (such as Mississippi) as a de facto way of blocking doctors from providing abortions, because it can be difficult for them to get those privileges. A judge temporarily blocked Wisconsin's provision from taking effect a few days later, after Planned Parenthood and the ACLU filed suit. The law Walker signed also includes a mandatory sonogram provision.
On Tuesday, WikiLeaks hinted that former NSA contractor Edward Snowden may soon begin his journey to a country willing to grant him asylum. The group tweeted cryptically that "the first phase of Snowden's 'Flight of Liberty' campaign will be launched" today. As of this afternoon, WikiLeaks has provided no additional information about what that entails. Here are eight questions we have about Snowden's "Flight of Liberty":
1. Where is Snowden going?
Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Bolivia have offered Snowden asylum. Venezuela looks like the most likely option, but it's unknown whether he has accepted any of the asylum offers he has received. Snowden applied for asylum in at least 21 countries, and several have still not publicly responded, including China and Cuba.
2. How will he get there?
As we reported yesterday, Snowden's best bet is a chartered plane, which can fly a route that will avoid crossing airspace belonging to the United States or one of its allies. However, Snowden could still risk flying to Venezuela, Bolivia, or Nicaragua commercially, or even go by boat. Of the boat option, former CIA analyst Allen Thomson says: "I don't think he'd go from St. Petersburg through the Baltic and out to the Atlantic, as that gets him too close to US-friendly territory. Leaving from Murmansk and then going down the Norwegian Sea, North Atlantic, and on to Caracas, maybe."
3. Will there be a movie on his flight?
If Snowden flies commercial to Latin America, he will have to take the Russian airline Aeroflot, where he can choose between these movies that are currently playing onboard: Stoker (review), Trance, Jack the Giant Slayer, War Horse, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, and A Good Day to Die Hard (review).
4. Does Snowden speak Spanish?
It is unknown if Snowden speaks Spanish or another foreign language. His letter to the president of Ecuador requesting asylum was written in Spanish, but it's unclear if he wrote it.
5. Who is bankrolling Snowden's escape?
WikiLeaks has reportedly been helping Snowden out financially. But according to the Daily Beast, WikiLeaks raised only $90,000 in 2012—though the group has been receiving about $1,300 per day in donations since it began assisting Snowden. That's still not enough to cover the cost of a private jet. None of the countries who have offered Snowden asylum have said they would foot the bill for his transportation.
6. Where has he been all of this time in the airport?
According to the Washington Post, Snowden "has made himself lost for [days] in a mile-long transit corridor dotted with six VIP lounges, a 66-room capsule hotel, assorted coffee shops, a Burger King and about 20 duty-free shops selling Jack Daniel's, Cuban rum, Russian vodka and red caviar."
7. Have the Russians or the Chinese obtained information from Snowden's laptops?
Snowden is reportedly carrying numerous laptops. An unidentified official told the New York Times that China has hacked into Snowden's laptops and taken all of the contents, but Snowden told the Guardian this week that "I never gave any information to either government, and they never took anything from my laptops."
8. How far will the United States go to extradite him?
President Obama said recently that "we're not scrambling jets to get a 29-year-old hacker" but Thomson, the ex-CIA analyst, notes he "sure wouldn't bet against" the idea of the United States going out of its way to ground a plane that flies over US airspace.