WASHINGTON -- In advance of Tuesday's State of the Union address, President Barack Obama proposed overhauling a federal law used to prosecute hackers. His suggested revision has come under fire from fellow Democrats and tech experts, who said that it would make a bad law worse, discourage cybersecurity researchers from doing their jobs, and expand penalties even for hacktivists like the late Aaron Swartz, who killed himself while under federal indictment.
The president's measure, which arrived last week after a high-profile cyberattack against Sony Pictures Entertainment, aims to reform the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act by beefing up penalties for hacking offenses and broadening the definition of hacking.
"There are problems with the CFAA as it is. ... What the president's proposal would do would be to actually broaden the act," said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.). "It's the wrong thing to do."
"I have deep concerns about adding any powers or penalties to the CFAA given how poorly this law is applied," said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).
Right now, certain hacking crimes start as misdemeanor offenses. Under the new proposal, they would be felonies meriting a minimum three-year sentence. The wording of Obama's proposal also might allow hacking crimes to be "double counted" under overlapping federal and state laws, George Washington University law professor Orin Kerr wrote in The Washington Post.
Federal prosecutors used the CFAA to go after Swartz after he allegedly broke into computer networks at MIT and downloaded an enormous number of academic documents in order to make them more widely available. He was indicted on multiple felony charges. After his death in 2013, The New Yorker called the CFAA "the worst law in technology." A bill dubbed Aaron's Law was introduced by Lofgren and Wyden that year to reform the CFAA, but it went nowhere.
Lofgren described the president's new proposal as the opposite of Aaron's Law. Wyden said, "I co-wrote Aaron’s Law to rein in this law and ensure that the CFAA doesn’t apply, for example, to a mere violation of a website’s terms of service, like lying about your age on Facebook."
Civil liberties advocates and tech experts also point out that it's not just malicious hackers who could be implicated under the revised law. Gabriel Rottman, legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, said that under Obama's proposal, correctly guessing a password to gain access to a computer would be a felony, whatever the hacker's intent, "which is a problem both as a matter of free expression and privacy, and in terms of creating new and draconian federal crimes."
Marc Rogers, head of security at the hacker conference DefCon, told HuffPost that the information security community is "very concerned" about the proposal and that it was the hot topic at Shmoocon, another hacker convention recently held in Washington.
"This law would essentially make everything I do a criminal offense," Rogers said.
"It will take a broken law and make it even more broken," he added, noting that "it's not going to stop the criminals" but it will "stop a lot of white hats and ethical hackers because they don't want to break the law."
Kyle Wilhoit, senior threat researcher for the Japanese cybersecurity firm Trend Micro, said that while he could not speak on behalf of the company, he believed the president's proposal "could definitely modify the way in which we conduct research." He said that the revision would cut down on the hacking attributions he is able to investigate and could decrease the number of victim notifications he makes.
"The broad terminology in the proposal shows a lack of understanding in my opinion," Wilhoit said.
The revised CFAA would turn hacking into a racketeering offense, which means it could sweep in those who were simply "giving advice to people," Wired wrote. It would also allow the government to seize the individuals' assets before conviction. Lofgren said that it was "bizarre" the proposal would expand civil forfeiture even as the attorney general is moving in the opposite direction in the nondigital world.
"There’s also the concern that the breadth of the proposal could result in politically motivated prosecutions," Rottman said. "Imagine what the Nixon administration could have accomplished in a digital world with a law that allows you to prosecute dissenting hacktivists with a severe federal felony," he added.
01/21/2015 3:05 AM EST
Obama Emphasizes U.S. Security Reliance On Shaky Foreign Partners
HuffPost's Akbar Shahid Ahmed reports:
President Barack Obama used his first State of the Union address after once again ramping up U.S. military involvement in the Middle East to describe his foreign policy as a judicious mix of military force and diplomacy -- and left no doubt he believes positive engagement with the international community is key to what he called "a safer, more prosperous world."
"I believe in a smarter kind of American leadership," Obama said. "We lead best when we combine military power with strong diplomacy; when we leverage our power with coalition building; when we don’t let our fears blind us to the opportunities that this new century presents."
The emphasis on diplomacy was nothing new for the Obama administration, but the president's multiple references to U.S. reliance on partners abroad invites scrutiny that may show those partners falling short of U.S. expectations.
01/21/2015 2:17 AM EST
From Nice-ish To Nasty: How 2016 GOP Contenders Responded To The State Of The Union
HuffPost's Christina Wilkie reports:
Likely Republican 2016 presidential candidates on Tuesday seemed to agree that President Barack Obama's State of the Union Address was off base. What they disagreed on was why. Responses issued by possible contenders after the hour-long speech ranged from civil, optimistic messages to angry visions of a world beset by terrorism.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush gave one of the sunnier Republican responses of the night -- sunnier, that is, for a put-down. "It's unfortunate President Obama wants to use the tax code to divide us -– instead of proposing reforms to create economic opportunity for every American," Bush said in a statement. "We can do better."
Mitt Romney, Bush's potential rival for the backing of the GOP establishment in 2016, also was measured in his response, calling the speech "disappointing" and "a missed opportunity to lead."
From there, the tenor of the rhetoric intensified.
01/21/2015 1:37 AM EST
Obama State Of The Union Address Highlights Battle For The Middle Class
More than anything, President Barack Obama's State of the Union Address signaled a fresh battle for the hearts and minds of America's beleaguered middle class -- and Republicans weren't having any of it.
Obama mentioned the middle class at least seven times and touted "working" people at least nine as he rolled out proposals to offer new child tax credits, raise the minimum wage, extend paid family leave and make college more affordable. He mentioned "families" 16 times.
But well before Obama's speech was over, House Speaker John Boehner's (R-Ohio) office was firing off responses, declaring that Obama's "regulatory onslaught squeezes the very middle-class families he claims to be trying to help," and that he was threatening to veto what Republicans consider to be jobs bills.
01/21/2015 1:00 AM EST
GOP Mentions Immigration In State of The Union Rebuttal...But Only In Spanish
HuffPost's Elise Foley reports:
Earlier Tuesday, it appeared the GOP's Spanish-language rebuttal to the State of the Union would be exactly the same as the English-language one, just delivered by a Latino congressman instead of a senator who wants to make English the official U.S. language.
But when the speeches were delivered in the evening, there was at least one major difference -- one key to many Spanish-language audiences. Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), delivering the official Republican rebuttal, did not utter the word "immigration" once. Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.) not only mentioned the issue, but said Republicans want to work on it with President Barack Obama.
"We should also work through the appropriate channels to create permanent solutions for our immigration system, modernize legal immigration and strengthen our economy. In the past, the president has expressed support for ideas like these, now we ask him to collaborate with us to get it done," Curbelo said in the address, translated by liberal group American Bridge (and checked by The Huffington Post).
01/21/2015 12:46 AM EST
Jason Chaffetz: Taxing Inheritance Is 'One Of The Most Immoral Things You Can Do'
HuffPost's Ryan Grim reports:
House and Senate Republicans are rejecting President Barack Obama’s suggestion to reform tax code that allows heirs to inherit extreme amounts of wealth largely tax-free.
“Let’s close the loopholes that lead to inequality by allowing the top 1 percent to avoid paying taxes on their accumulated wealth,” Obama said Tuesday night during his annual State of the Union address. “We can use that money to help more families pay for child care and send their kids to college.”
A variety of tax strategies exist to shield much of an inheritance from taxation. And that, said Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), is as it should be. Chaffetz moved quickly from talking points to genuine anger in responding to the president’s proposal. “That’s a non-starter. The audacity, that he thinks the government has a right to people’s money? He wants to transfer wealth," Chaffetz said. "It’s one of the most immoral things you can do, is try to steal somebody’s inheritance, to steal it away from their family.”
01/21/2015 12:40 AM EST
Dreamers At State Of The Union Hope Obama Continues To Push Forward On Immigration
HuffPost's Elise Foley reports:
The White House and members of Congress often make political statements through their choice of guests for the State of the Union. There is no place that gets more attention than the first lady's box, where the guest list serves as an illustration of the president's priorities for the upcoming year. For the past few years, that list has included Dreamers: Alan Aleman attended as one of the first lady's guests in 2013. In 2014, it was Avila. And this year, 21-year-old Dreamer Ana Zamora was one of Michelle Obama's guests. Other undocumented immigrants, some of them Dreamers, also attended this year, as guests of Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Reps. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), Mark Takano (D-Calif.) and Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.).
Even in a speech in which Obama said the word "immigration" only twice -- plus "immigrant" and "immigrants" once each -- the presence of those guests was meant to send a message that Democrats are committed to programs like Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, which allows Dreamers to remain in the country. House Republicans voted last week to end that policy, along with elements of the measures Obama announced in November, such as protections for parents.
Read the full story here.
01/21/2015 12:04 AM EST
State Of The Union Watchers Give Obama High Marks In Instant Poll
HuffPost's Ariel Levy reports:
Americans who watched President Barack Obama's State of the Union address largely approved, giving him better marks than they did for last year's speech, according to instant polling conducted by CNN.
Positive ratings from State of the Union watchers are the rule, not the exception. CNN found Obama getting high marks in all five annual State of the Union speeches they previously polled (the network didn't conduct a post-State of the Union poll in 2012). Former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton also received largely positive ratings.
Eighty-one percent of viewers had a somewhat positive or very positive opinion of the 2015 State of the Union, according to CNN -- up from 76 percent in 2014, and in line with ratings for Obama's speeches in 2011 and 2013.
01/21/2015 12:01 AM EST
Obama Gives Push To Restoring Voting Rights Act: 'The Right To Vote Is Sacred'
HuffPost's Jennifer Bendery reports:
President Barack Obama pushed Congress Tuesday night to restore a key portion of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, even though Republicans signaled last week they have no intention of doing so.
"We may go at it in campaign season, but surely we can agree that the right to vote is sacred; that it's being denied to too many; and that, on this 50th anniversary of the great march from Selma to Montgomery and the passage of the Voting Rights Act, we can come together, Democrats and Republicans, to make voting easier for every single American," Obama said during his State of the Union address.
01/20/2015 11:17 PM EST
Obama Warns Lawmakers: Stay Away From Iran Talks
HuffPost's Ali Watkins reports:
President Obama warned lawmakers in his State of the Union address on Tuesday against interfering with his administration's nuclear negotiations with Iran, promising to veto any new sanctions legislation that makes it to his desk.
“New sanctions passed by this Congress, at this moment in time, will all but guarantee that diplomacy fails -- alienating America from its allies and ensuring that Iran starts up its nuclear program again,” Obama said. “It doesn’t make sense. That is why I will veto any new sanctions bill that threatens to undo this progress.”
Read the full story here.
01/20/2015 11:15 PM EST
Howard Fineman: Joni Ernst Didn’t Say Much In Her SOTU Response
Howard Fineman joins HuffPost Live to weigh in on Sen. Joni Ernst’s Republican rebuttal to the State of the Union. Watch: