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Technology and the Law No. 3: Cybersecurity


With the release of the movie "Snowden," the characterization of the former NSA employee and his actions is once again being hotly debated. Was he a heroic whistleblower who revealed massive illegal data collection operations on U.S. citizens without their knowledge or consent, or was he a traitor, who stole and disclosed thousands of classified documents that jeopardized national security and international intelligence gathering capabilities?

No matter which view you subscribe to, it is indisputable that Snowden's actions brought the issue of privacy and government intrusion into citizens' privacy to the forefront of national discourse. Much of the information collected by the government was phone records, addresses, travel records, etc--the so-called meta data. Collection of this kind of data on such a massive scale leads to the inevitable question: what happens when other people--or governments--get access to this information?


In the past several years, there have been many big data breaches resulting in vast amounts of personal information falling into the hands of hackers. Some of these breaches are believed to have been perpetrated by other countries or groups in other countries. Recall the Sony hack in late 2014, where proprietary information, employee/employment details, and embarrassing emails were leaked; China's involvement was suspected in that breach. In early 2015, the Anthem data breach in which the social security numbers, email addresses, and physical addresses of 80 million people were exposed was also linked to China.

In July of 2015, the widely publicized breach of the federal Office of Personnel Management's computer system led to the leak of such personal information as social security numbers, fingerprints, addresses, health histories, and financial histories of 21.5 million people. The hack breached the background check records, therefore compromising anyone who worked for or who had applied to work for the federal government and had a background check performed as part of that process. Once again, China was believed to be the culprit.

However, in 2016, China's cyber activity into U.S. data found some prestigious company. When sensitive emails of the Democratic National Committee were leaked on the eve of the Democratic National Convention in July, leading to the resignation of the Chair, Russia was implicated in the leak. At the end of August, the state voter registration databases in Illinois and Arizona were breached, and the information of thousands of state residents was compromised, along with the integrity of the electoral system in those districts. Once again, Russia is suspected of trying to influence the U.S. elections, or at least cast doubts on the validity of the results.

At the time of writing this blog, Yahoo confirmed a cyber breach of 500 million user accounts. The types of information taken were: users' names, email addresses, telephone numbers, birth dates, hashed passwords, and security questions and answers for validating accounts. A state-sponsored hack is suspected.


Experts advise that preventative measures are no longer sufficient to guard against cyber attacks. The better way: prediction. Anticipate where hackers will strike next and protect the information. Two Carnegie Mellon University researchers built a classification algorithm aptly called "the classifier" which can predict future hacks by identifying websites and servers that are most at risk. The classifier looks at certain HTML tags and keywords for clues about a website's vulnerability, and then alerts the researchers and the owners of the website. The algorithm is constantly updating and improving its predictive abilities.


In a digitized, inter-connected world, keeping your personal information private may seem like a quaint, old-fashioned notion. But you have as much right to expect your health and financial records to remain confidential as you did your phone calls--before the meta-data collection revealed by Edward Snowden. If your personal information has been compromised, contact Dave Thomas at The Thomas Law Firm for a free evaluation of your legal rights.

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