A 14-year-old eighth grader in Florida, Domanik Green, has been charged with a felony for “hacking” his teacher’s computer. The “hacking” in this instance was using a widely known password to change the desktop background of his teacher’s computer with an image of two men kissing. The outrage of being charged with a felony for what essentially amounts to a misguided prank should be familiar to those who follow how computer crimes are handled by our justice system.
Usually, when it comes to bad laws related to computer hacking, or unauthorized access, the focus is the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA). However, this instance highlights that many states have their own version of the federal statute, with their own overbroad and insensible language, including Florida.
In fact, the Florida statute is even harsher than the CFAA. A lowest level offense under CFAA (1030(c)(2)(A)) is a misdemeanor, but in Florida, the lowest level offense (815.06(2)(A)) is a felony. Furthermore, the Florida statute also neglects to define what “authorized” or “unauthorized” means, and under these facts a reasonable person may think they are authorized if the passwords had been widely used by students.
In explaining why felony charges were brought against the teenager, Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco stated:
Even though some might say this is just a teenage prank, who knows what this teenager might have done...
The teacher’s computer reportedly had sensitive encrypted information related to the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT). However, the school and the sheriff have admitted that they found no evidence that the student tampered with or even intended to tamper with those files. Additionally, it has been reported that the school had terrible operational security where weak passwords, teachers entering passwords in front of students, and students regularly using teacher credentials, were prevalent. This further highlights the complications of using a statute to prosecute crimes that does not clearly define what it aims to criminalize.
Undeterred, the Sheriff goes on to say:
If information comes back to us and we get evidence (that other kids have done it), they're going to face the same consequences…
The arbitrary practice of how computer crime laws are applied is not just an exclusive feature of federal prosecutorial discretion, but local law enforcement also engages in such behavior. The idea of giving prosecutors and police discretion on charging decisions is generally seen as a good thing, but the plight of Domanik Green shows otherwise. The aggressive use of discretion here could have long-lasting consequences for a 14-year old child who will deal with the consequences of a felony—difficult job prospects, loss of voting rights, inability to carry a firearm, etc.—for a juvenile prank.
Charging decisions and punishment should be proportional to the harm a person causes. The only thing that “making an example” out of Domanik Green accomplishes is to make an example of how out of whack our computer crime laws—and the prosecutorial discretion that accompanies it—are. We call on Pasco County to do the sensible thing and not ruin Domanik Green’s life. This is not justice.