As I’ve noted before, the general federal computer crime statute -- 18 U.S. Code § 1030 (a/k/a the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act or CFAA) – isn’t just a criminal statute. It also creates a civil cause of action for those who have been injured – have suffered "damage" -- as a result of a criminal violation of the statute.
This post is about a civil suit brought under 18 U.S. Code § 1030(g), the section that creates the cause of action. The suit was brought by Aaron Doyle against “Haley Taylor, Brian Chase, and Brian Chase, PLLC”. Doyle v. Taylor, 2010 WL 2163521 (U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington 2010). Here is how the lawsuit arose:
[Doyle] alleges that Chase obtained a USB thumb drive from [Doyle]'s client, Haley Taylor, in February of 2009 and it remained in his possession until May of 2009. [Doyle] alleges that this thumb drive was his property and that Haley Taylor stole this thumb drive from him. For the purposes of this motion, [Chase] assumes as true that Ms. Taylor in fact stole the thumb drive. However, [Chase] declares that Ms. Taylor told him she had received the thumb drive in an anonymous mailing. [Doyle] asserts that [Chase] made a copy of the contents of this thumb drive and put all of the documents onto his laptop computer. [Chase] eventually returned the original thumb drive to the Moses Lake Police Department in October of 2009 in compliance with a state court order. During the time that [Chase] possessed this thumb drive, he emailed electronic copies, printed out copies and disseminated paper copies of the documents on the thumb drive to third parties.
One of the documents contained in the thumb drive was titled `Notice of Proposed Termination' from [Doyle]'s former employer, the Sierra County Sheriff's Office. It was rescinded after a settlement was reached between both of the parties, and the California state court sealed the file. The California state court found that `[t]he records include confidential personnel records ordinarily protected against disclosure by the employee's right to privacy . . . [d]isclosure of the contents of the records lodged conditionally under seal would unduly embarrass [Aaron Doyle].' [Chase] distributed this document to various parties, including filing it in at least two court proceedings in Washington state courts.
Doyle v. Taylor, supra. Chase responded to the suit by filing a motion for summary judgment. Doyle v. Taylor, supra. As Wikipedia explains, in the U.S. a motion for summary judgment asks the trial judge to enter judgment without proceeding to trial because there are “no material issues of fact” that warrant a trial so the court can simply apply the law to the facts that have been set out in the pleadings. Chase’s motion asked the judge in this case to throw the case out because the facts on the record didn’t justify taking the case to trial. Doyle v. Taylor, supra.
Before we get into the legal issues, a little more background on what happened here might be useful. According to Chase’s motion for summary judgment, Doyle moved to Quincy, California and
took up with Hayley Taylor. . . . They had an affair that lasted until . . . they had an acrimonious breakup. . . . A couple weeks later, Ms. Taylor, her mother, and her step father, the Grays, unsuccessfully attempted to get orders for protection against Doyle.
The genesis of this action occurred when Brian Chase was retained by Robert and Peggy Gray to represent them in obtaining permanent anti-harassment restraining orders against Doyle. Chase prepared a declaration and attached a letter that was a proposed termination to Doyle from Van Maddox the Sierra County Auditor that recited allegations, which had some resemblance to the complaints of the Grays. . . . Doyle sued the Grays for defamation. In a conversation with Doyle's attorney Robert Schiffner, Chase told him that if Doyle did not back off his claims against the Grays he would file Maddox's letter. Schiffner filed his own declaration claiming the documents were stolen from Doyle's house and had been ordered sealed by a court in California. Doyle filed a theft report. Chase had received the letter from Haley Taylor, and when she learned that she was now being investigated for having burgled Doyle's house, she gave Chase a thumb drive that contained the letter she had given him. . . .
Memorandum in Support of Motion for Summary Judgment, Doyle v. Taylor, 2010 WL 1861673. Chase’s motion for summary judgment argued that Doyle’s case against him should be dismissed for either or both of two reasons: “(1) Plaintiff has not shown a loss, as required by the statute, and (2) a thumb drive does not meet the statutory definition of a `computer.’” Doyle v. Taylor, supra. We’ll discuss them in order.
Doyle’s CFAA claim was brought under 18 U.S. Code § 1030(a)(2)(C), which makes it a crime to intentionally access a computer without authorization and thereby obtain information. As the judge noted, “any person bringing a civil action must show a loss of at least $5,000” in a one-year period resulting from the CFAA violation. Doyle v. Taylor, supra. Section 1030(e)(11) defines “loss” as
any reasonable cost to any victim, including the cost of responding to an offense, conducting a damage assessment, and restoring the data, program, system, or information to its condition prior to the offense, and any revenue lost, cost incurred, or other consequential damages incurred because of interruption of service.
Chase claimed Doyle hadn’t shown he’d incurred any costs as a result of Chase’s accessing the thumb drive. Doyle v. Taylor, supra. To rebut that, Doyle hired a computer forensics expert who submitted “two declarations detailing the work he anticipates would be required to determine what files were copied from the thumb drive and stored on other computers. The expert estimates that the cost of such work would easily exceed $5,000.” Doyle v. Taylor, supra. The judge didn’t find that sufficient.
The Court finds that the thrust of [Doyle’s] loss assessment misses the mark. [His] expert focuses on the cost that would be incurred by examining other parties' computers -- computers onto which [Chase] allegedly copied material taken from [Doyle’s] thumb drive-and permanently deleting any such material found. However, the [CFAA] primarily redresses damages to computers and information accessed in violation of the act. . . . Accordingly, a number of district courts have strictly construed the Act's `damages’ and `loss’ definitions to find that plaintiffs must identify impairment of or damage to the computer system that was accessed without authorization.
Doyle v. Taylor, supra. The judge also explained that while Chase’s accessing the
thumb drive may fall within the scope of conduct prohibited by the [CFAA], there is no basis in the record to find that the thumb drive was impaired or [Doyle] will incur any costs associated with restoring any such impairment. Moreover, [Doyle] has not shown `any revenue lost, cost incurred, or other consequential damages incurred because of interruption of service.’ [He] cites no cases, and the Court finds none, recognizing as sufficient the primary loss Plaintiff alleges: the cost of examining others' computer systems and deleting misappropriated files. . . . Under [Doyle’s] theory . . . a compensable loss could accrue every time any person accessed another person's computer or thumb drive without authorization and copied information stored there, because a forensic expert would have to be retained to examine every computer onto which such information might have been copied, and delete it. That strikes the Court as outside the intended scope of the [CFAA].
Doyle v. Taylor, supra. The judge also noted, in an aside the law calls dictum, that even if he bought Doyle’s theory of loss, Doyle hadn’t shown that he’d actually incurred any loss; the expert’s first declaration simply described “the process of making a `forensic image’ of a computer and comparing the `fingerprints’ of files so that unauthorized files can be deleted” and mentioned the expert’s hourly fee. Doyle v. Taylor, supra.
The judge found that “no reasonable jury could properly award damages based solely on the expert’s declaration” because the jury would “have to speculate about how many computers” and files were involved and how many hours the expert would need to conduct the examination. Doyle v. Taylor, supra. The judge therefore granted Chase’s motion for summary judgment and threw out the case. Doyle v. Taylor, supra. (Taylor had been dismissed as a defendant earlier, I don't know why.)
What about the second argument? Sadly, as far as I’m concerned, the judge didn’t address it. Here’s how Chase articulated the argument in the memorandum he submitted in support of his motion for summary judgment:
A computer `means an electronic, magnetic, optical, electrochemical, or other high speed data processing device performing logical, arithmetic, or storage functions . . . .’ and includes any data storage facility or communications facility directly related to or operating in conjunction with such device.' Doyle wants to read this as `an electronic . . . device performing . . . storage functions’ by omitting the words `data processing’ before `device.’ Thumb drives do not process data; they only store it. . . . The grammatical integrity of the definition does not include a thumb drive any more than it would include independently a computer case or a human interface device.
Memorandum in Support of Motion for Summary Judgment, Doyle v. Taylor, supra (quoting 18 U.S. Code § 1030(e)(1)). It would have been interesting to see how the judge ruled on this argument . . . but, of course, he didn’t need to, having already determined that the case should be dismissed.