WASHINGTON (CN) — In a case that could lay new ground in computer privacy, the Supreme Court agreed Monday to look at a sting operation rooted in the premise that a strip club dancer might be an undercover cop.
The case hinges on whether a former Georgia police sergeant committed wire and computer fraud in his capacity as an officer authorized to access information on state and federal databases.
“The answer to this question has sweeping implications,” Nathan Van Buren said in his petition for a writ of certiorari. “Every day, ‘millions of ordinary citizens’ across the country use computers for work and for personal matters.”
As noted in the filing, Van Buren was struggling financially in the summer of 2015 when he sought a loan from a local man who had a reputation in their town of Cumming of paying prostitutes and then claiming they had robbed him. Fearing that the women were going to retaliate against him, the man, Andrew Albo, would sometimes ask the police to run license plate tags he found suspicious.
Van Buren says his request for a loan led to Albo wearing a wire for the FBI, which wanted “to test how far [Van Buren] was willing to go for money.” The FBI concocted the ruse about the stripper: Albo said he liked her but worried she was working undercover.
After he took $5,000 to run the license plate, Van Buren was found guilty of conducting a search for an improper purpose. He was sentenced to 18 months.
The 11th Circuit affirmed, finding that Van Buren was in the wrong by the “plain language” of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.
Represented before the Supreme Court by the Stanford Law School Supreme Court Litigation Clinic, Van Buren says CFAA interpretation of which he was convicted sweeps too broadly over “commonplace activities of nearly all computer users, going far beyond the objectives of the statute.”
It could attach criminal liability to a breadth of private computer policies “that most people are only dimly aware of and virtually no one reads or understands,” the petition warns.
Per its custom, the Supreme Court did not issue any comment Monday in taking up the case. The writ of certiorari is the only grant in an order list where dozens of other cases were turned down.
“We’re grateful the court has decided this important case and look forward to explaining why the government’s view of the CFAA is overly broad,” Standford attorney Jeffrey Fisher said in an email Monday.
The Justice Department, in an opposition brief, argued that Van Buren failed to identify supporting precedent.