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The actual computer crime law (as interpreted)


By Scott Bradner, Network World, 04/10/07


The United States has a lot of laws (a surfeit some might say). It's doubtful any one person can know them all, even within a particular jurisdiction and about a particular topic. But fear not, the Department of Justice is here to help at least in one area.


It has just published another manual in a series examining federal laws in the realm of computer crime. So you too can see what laws you might be breaking as you go through your average day of computer work.


The manuals have significant disclaimers. The preface says: "This manual is intended as assistance, not authority. The research, analysis, and conclusions herein [reflect] current thinking on difficult and dynamic areas of the law; they do not represent the official position of the Department of Justice or any other agency. This manual has no regulatory effect, confers no rights or remedies, and does not have the force of law or a U.S. Department of Justice directive."


But, in spite of the careful "unfit for any purpose" type of warning, the manuals are clearly intended to give an unofficial road map to those who are in the business of prosecuting what they think are crimes. In particular, a road map to help find the crime that fits the offense or to warn off an overzealous prosecutor going beyond the current understanding of what specific laws apply to.


The newest manual is titled "Prosecuting Computer Crimes" and joins two others in the series: "Searching and Seizing Computers and Electronic Evidence" and "Prosecuting Intellectual Property Crime." The manuals have been produced by or for the Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section, Criminal Division, U.S. Department of Justice and can be found on its Web site.


You might ask why I would even bring up such manuals in this column.


Well, one of the most persistent animals on most Internet mailing lists is the amateur lawyer who insists on asserting with great apparent authority what is legally right and wrong. When a real lawyer who actually knows the law in the field shows up on the list they are frequently outposted 10 to one by the assertive amateur.


All too frequently the amateur posts what appear to be reasonable assertions of how things work that may be convincing to new readers of the list; longer-term readers tend to put such people in their e-mail kill lists. But the posts are almost always complete nonsense when it comes to the laws of the country. Many of the posters make the easy error of assuming that the law must work in a particular way because that is the only way that they think it could work and make sense, at least to them. An actual lawyer postulated a while back on a mailing list that a particularly prolific amateur lawyer must have received legal training at the University of Mars.


Manuals such as these from the Justice Department can be of great use in inserting some reality to runaway mailing lists discussions. Sad to say, facts are infrequently a permanent cure, but they can be of temporary help in some cases.


Disclaimer: The evidence generally, but not universally, suggests that one of Harvard's divisions trains real lawyers. But I did not ask them how to counter amateur ones, so the above non-panacea is mine alone.


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