Friday, May 14, 2010

Caveat Surfer

A recent article got me thinking about laws and the internet. A couple days ago, the Latvian police apprehended a researcher at the University of Latvia who they claim hacked into government systems and obtained tax documents of various officials. Apparently, there was a security flaw that allowed anyone to access Latvian tax records by basically visiting the proper url. So this alleged "hacker" probably wrote a simple shell script to get 7.5 million tax documents and sent them to a journalist. He now faces a possible 10 years in jail for essentially executing an illegal command.

Now, we don't really know what he did, and I have little knowledge of Latvian law, but it got me thinking about what I'd ideally like the law to be. On one extreme, we have people who write viruses and purposely cause lots of damage; on the other extreme are people who steal wifi from the local coffee shop (even they can get arrested).

This Latvian story falls somewhere in between -- unlike the wifi "thief," the Latvian hacker probably should have known what he was doing could get him into trouble, but do we really want to live in a society where you can be sent to jail for visiting a website? It seems one problem is that visiting a website can include everything from buffer overflow attacks to illegal currency transfers. But this incident feels more like the Latvian government put sensitive information online and then decided to arrest anyone who accessed it.

I guess it's unavoidable that laws about the digital world, even more so than laws about face-to-face interactions, will have seemingly arbitrary lines between what's legal and what's not. But there should be some burden on people and governments to reasonably protect their own data -- and freedom for all of us to poke around a little.

Reddit has some interesting comments on this story.

For a blog on these types of issues by people who have thought about them more than I, visit Freedom to Tinker.

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