UPDATED: Extra charges for Bradley Manning because he used a computer

Update: EFF has retracted this post.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation's Trevor Timm explains a disturbing and overlooked fact about the trial of Bradley Manning; the charge-sheet against him included two separate felonies under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, an ancient anti-hacking statute that has been used as a club to threaten security researchers and activists like Aaron Swartz. The CFAA makes it a separate offense to leak classified information using a computer, such that anyone caught doing so can be charged twice: first under the Espionage Act and again under the CFAA.

This gives tremendous and terrible leverage to prosecutors, who come to the negotiating table with double the ammo: "We'll drop the CFAA charges if you plead guilty to the Espionage Act charges" (or vice-versa). The reality is that there's nothing special about using a computer to leak documents -- indeed, these days you'd be hard pressed not to use a computer -- now that photocopiers, fax machines, phones, cameras and even the daily paper are all built out of computers.

Several Congresses have failed to modernize the CFAA, because the DoJ has forcefully argued that the ability to threaten people with decades in jail for simply using computers has given them the leverage to force "bad guys" to plead guilty, rather than getting a day in court.

The Judiciary Committee basically copy-pasted the Espionage Act into the CFAA, but forbid "use of the computer" rather than accessing the documents. So there you have it: they specifically wanted to make the isolated act of using a computer a separate crime.

In the government’s mind, the Espionage Act can be used to punish a leaker of information, and if that person merely used a computer to get that information, they are guilty of an additional felony. So someone who emails documents to a journalists it got off a government computer will face ten more years per charge, than a government official who photocopied documents he got off a shelf and physically mailed them to the same journalist.

Of course, leaks to the press should never be equated with espionage, regardless of what statute is used. But this is yet another example of the government using knowledge of computers to unjustly ratchet up penalties on a crime that caused little or no harm.

Bradley Manning Faced Harsher Prosecution Merely Because His Leaks Involved a Computer

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  1. Of course the Department of Justice wants to use leverage to convince bad people to plead rather than go to court. It's more efficient. If a few innocent people get convinced to plead guilty rather than risk spending the next 5 lifetimes in prison, well that's their fault for pleading guilty. Justice!

  2. If I were to consider significant whistleblowing, I'd assume the table stakes are decades in prison (or exile). Is there any way to avoid that?

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