With that, the Justice Department began a case that has come to symbolize what some lawyers and civil libertarians see as overreach in the government’s campaign against cybercrime.
The hacker, Andrew Auernheimer, was convicted and sentenced last month to more than three years in prison for obtaining about 120,000 e-mail addresses of iPad users from AT&T’s Web site — including New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I), Hollywood executive Harvey Weinstein and other prominent figures — and giving them to the Web site Gawker. At the time it happened three years ago, the data breach jolted federal officials because it affected one of the nation’s most prominent companies and triggered fears about the security of increasingly popular mobile devices.
Yet only a few, heavily redacted e-mail addresses were published, court documents show. No one’s account was broken into. AT&T fixed the problem in about an hour, and a company official testified that there probably was not enough evidence to sue the hackers.
The case highlights a growing debate over how to define right and wrong in the digital age, what is public and proprietary online, and how far law enforcement should go in pursuing cybercrime.
The Obama administration is confronting what it calls a vast cybersecurity threat, and the Justice Department is waging aggressive efforts, including against national security threats such as cyberterrorism and cyber-espionage. But recent cases involving other types of online activity have prompted criticism that the crackdown may also be scooping up minor hackers who see themselves as political or anti-corporate activists.
Among the most prominent is former Reuters journalist Matthew Keys, who was indicted last month on charges of conspiring with the hacker group Anonymous to alter an article on the Web site of the Los Angeles Times. Federal authorities have said they suspect that Keys was acting in response to his firing by a Sacramento television station that, like the Los Angeles Times, is owned by Tribune Co.
Another highly publicized case involved Internet-freedom advocate Aaron Swartz, who campaigned for academic and other information to be freely available online. Swartz killed himself in January while under indictment for allegedly accessing MIT’s computer network to steal more than 4 million scholarly articles.
His family said “prosecutorial overreach” contributed to his death. Federal prosecutors initially emphasized that he could face up to 35 years in prison but later disclosed that he was offered a plea deal with a recommended six-month sentence.
Justice Department officials said in interviews that their efforts — which involve more than 300 prosecutors nationwide dedicated to cybercrime — are vital for protecting Americans. They emphasized that deterrence is crucial because some hackers seek to target key infrastructure or steal large volumes of personal information.