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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Journalist charged with hacking says information was legally obtained

Although journalists are sometimes sued for libel, or perhaps failing to disclose sources in an investigation, some now face a much newer accusation: illegal hacking.

Two companies, TerraCom Inc. and YourTel America recently threatened to sue a reporter for illegally downloading information. Isaac Wolf, a reporter for Scripps Howard News Service, said he was researching companies that provide discounted phone services to low income Americans when he stumbled across records containing Social Security number and birth dates.

Wolf subsequently published his findings and wrote a story about the company’s security flaw, which included a state-by-state breakdown of where the most security breaches were occurring.

Scripps Howard claims the records were easily accessible and not password protected, but TerraCom and YourTel American say the company “hacked” into their servers. An Indian company subcontracted by TerraCom and YourTel that processes applications for the phone program had put the personal information online. It is not clear if the Indian company will be involved in future lawsuits.

However, counsel for the two companies cited the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) as grounds for a lawsuit against Scripps Howard because the news service gained unauthorized access into computer files and transferred this information into their servers. Scripps Howard argues they did not violate the CFAA and remain  innocent – all the information was obtained through simple searches accessible to the public.

The CFAA is not without its critics. Prominent computer crime law attorney Tor Ekeland said the CFAA is problematic because of its broadness and the act leaves a lot of parameters like “unauthorized access” open to interpretation. Another critic, Wire magazine, published a story calling the current CFAA vague, redundant, and vulnerable to abuse from prosecution.

Another example of the problems associated with the CFAA is the death of Aaron Schwartz. After computer programmer Aaron Schwartz committed suicide while facing felony charges for computer fraud, Internet activists protested the CFAA for driving the young prodigy to his death.

Although  Schwartz  definitely committed a crime, supporters believe he was treated harshly. Schwartz had recently stolen millions of documents from JSTOR by hacking into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s network. He was facing 35 years of jail time at the time of his suicide.

In response, several United States Representatives introduced Aaron’s Law this past summer, an amendment to the CFAA that would reduce punishments and eliminate jail time. According to, the bill has an 8 percent chance of being enacted.

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