False Identity: A Federal Crime in the US, But Heroic in the UK?

On The Internet Nobody Knows If You’re a 14-Year-Old Girl
stach_girl_180In Wales, a 61-year-old woman suspected that her husband had been sharing elicit emails with a 14-year-old girl, and feared he was a pedophile. She logged on from a computer elsewhere in their home, pretended to be such a girl, and found he was all too willing to email revealing photos and attempt to seduce her. She promptly notified authorities, and even protested when he didn’t receive prison time. Good for her.

CNET gave her a tip of the hat, but thanks to a bad law made in response to an even worse case, the same act in the US might lead to the wife being federally prosecuted. Last year, 44-year-old Lori Drew was convicted under Federal law for computer hacking, because she falsely claimed to be a 16-year-old boy when harassing a child who later committed suicide.

By construing the use of a false identity as “unauthorized access to a computing system,” and equating it to hacking, Federal officials criminalized a common act.  They did this to get one seemingly bad person, but along the way could have ensnared virtuous acts as well.

After all, presenting a pretended identity is nothing new. Consider how common it is in Shakespeare. Nor is it inherently criminal, let alone a Federal crime. Fortunately, Lori Drew was convicted of lesser charges. But this is still an example of how a hard case made for a bad application of the law. And how later consequences can be hard to predict.

Turns out, impersonating a teenager online can be used for good, that is where its hasn’t been criminalized. Common law holds that we are the owners of our names, and anonymity has often been upheld as a speech right. So the use of a pseudonym absent malicious  intent seems both part of our culture, and a healthy relief for today’s closely tracked, segmented and surveiled visitors.

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