So you leaked data on BreachForums, but weren’t the hacker? Can you be prosecuted for leaking?

In the wake of the arrest of “Pompompurin,” BreachForums’ self-proclaimed owner and moderator, DataBreaches has been contacted by a number of anxious folks who want to know if they are at risk of being arrested for their own actions.

Obviously, DataBreaches is not a lawyer or any kind of authority and can’t provide any assurances.  But nor does this site feel comfortable sitting back while so many forum users from BreachForums and/or RaidForums spout incorrect information about some U.S. laws.

As one example, some people have claimed that “leaking” isn’t “hacking” and so they can’t be prosecuted under the federal U.S. law, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA).  Others have claimed that if they didn’t hack data and just sell it or sell access to it, it’s legal, and hey look, Vinny Troia did a lot of that, so if he did and didn’t get prosecuted,1 why should they?

So to try to clear away some of the confusion, DataBreaches reached out to Tor Ekeland, a criminal defense attorney well-known for defending hackers. Here is the question put to him:

Is it still the case that the CFAA (Computer Fraud and Abuse Act) really doesn’t cover *leaked* data (unintentionally exposed data) or scraped data? If I find data leaking, I can download it (that’s not hacking), and I can then sell it because I didn’t steal it. Right? Or Wrong?

Here’s Tor reply:

The law, and what’s prosecuted under its name are often two different things. Leaked data isn’t unauthorized access, but may implicate other laws if you publish it like HIPAA, copyright, defamation, etc.

In general, prosecutors don’t make the finer distinctions when it comes to their blunderbuss prosecutions because they know they’ll rarely be challenged in court because most cases plead out. So you’ve got a largely unwritten body of law that’s being realized in the plea system, and the written case law that governs the minority of cases.

Understand? CFAA may not really apply to leaked data, but that won’t stop federal prosecutors from charging you under the CFAA, running up a stack of counts depending on how many U.S. victims are involved, and scaring the heck out of you so that you plead guilty to one charge of something.

And as Tor points out, even if you are not charged with  “unauthorized access” to data,  publishing or selling the data may come under other laws.

I hope the above helps a bit, but please don’t contact me and ask me about your specific situation. I am not a lawyer. If you are really anxious, then consult with a criminal defense attorney who has expertise in defending these kinds of cases.

1 Post-publication, Vinny Troia contacted this site about the comment about him by others, writing, “Did I ? Or is it only suggested by other criminals? I also don’t recall ever selling anything.”  When DataBreaches pointed out that he owned businesses and sites that sold access to databases that had originally been stolen by others, he asked if we could point out that other businesses do it too. But if it is legal for his business and other businesses to sell stolen databases that had been leaked publicly, then maybe those who argue that they are just doing the same thing may have a point. But as Ekeland says, the law and what is prosecuted under its name are often two different things.

Update: DataBreaches realizes that the statement about “scaring the heck out of you” might sound critical of prosecutors and the DOJ. DataBreaches does not mean that as a universal condemnation of all employees of DOJ or prosecutors, but to be honest, this blogger has never forgiven the DOJ for the suicide of Aaron Swartz, and does not want to see any other young hacker or hacktivist commit suicide because the DOJ piles on charges with terrifying sentences.

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