Megan Meier Case Update — Drew Indicted

Daniel Solove
Founder of TeachPrivacy

CFAA

I’ve blogged about the Megan Meier case a while ago. This is the case where Megan Meier, a teenager, committed suicide after her online friend from Myspace suddenly started to reject her and say mean things to her. The “friend” on Myspace was actually Lori Drew, the mother of one of her classmates, and some other individuals. They created the fake profile and were pretending to be Meier’s fictional friend.

Now, Drew has been indicted by a federal grand jury for a violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA). Here’s the indictment.

Drew was charged with conspiracy as well as three counts of accessing protected computers without authorization. According to the indictment:

On or about the following dates, defendant DREW, using a computer in O’Fallon, Missouri, intentionally accessed and caused to be accessed a computer used in interstate commerce, namely, the MySpace servers located in Los Angeles County, California, within the Central District of California, without authorization and in excess of authorized access, and, by means of interstate commerce obtained and caused to be obtained information from that computer to further tortious acts, namely intentional infliction of emotional distress on [Megan Meier].

From the AP:

Each of the four counts carries a maximum possible penalty of five years in prison.

Drew will be arraigned in St. Louis and then moved to Los Angeles for trial.

The indictment says MySpace members agree to abide by terms of service that include, among other things, not promoting information they know to be false or misleading; soliciting personal information from anyone under age 18 and not using information gathered from the Web site to “harass, abuse or harm other people.”

Drew and others who were not named conspired to violate the service terms from about September 2006 to mid-October that year, according to the indictment. It alleges that they registered as a MySpace member under a phony name and used the account to obtain information on the girl.

Drew and her coconspirators “used the information obtained over the MySpace computer system to torment, harass, humiliate, and embarrass the juvenile MySpace member,” the indictment charged.

UPDATE: Over at the Volokh Conspiracy, Orin Kerr believes that the indictment should be dismissed. Kerr believes that it is a stretch to apply the CFAA to violations of a site’s terms of service.

If the computer owner says that you can only access the computer if you are left-handed, or if you agree to be nice, are you committing a crime if you use the computer and are nasty or you are right-handed? If you violate the Terms of Service, are you committing a crime?

Kerr also argues that the prosecution will have a ver yhard time demonstrating that Drew intended to violate MySpace’s terms of service. He writes: “But here there is no evidence that Drew even read the TOS. Most people don’t, of course; I would be surprised if 1 person in 100 actually tried reading it. If Drew wasn’t aware that she was violating the TOS, she couldn’t be exceeding her authorized access intentionally.”

I agree with Kerr on these first two reasons. While Drew’s conduct is immoral, it is a very big stretch to call it illegal.

Kerr offers a third reason why the indictment is faulty — it is unclear whether the goal of the conspiracy was to obtain information, as was charged in the indictment. Kerr writes: “[I]t doesn’t seem that Drew had the intent to obtain information from her victim. Her apparent goal was to harass her victim and to cause emotional distress, not to obtain information from her.” On this reason, however, I’m not so sure I agree. The news accounts I read about the case indicated that one of Drew’s primary motivations for creating the fake profile was to learn information from Megan Meier. She wanted to know information from Megan that pertained to her own daughter, who was a classmate of Megan’s. The harassing came later on.

Originally Posted at Concurring Opinions

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This post was authored by Professor Daniel J. Solove, who through TeachPrivacy develops computer-based privacy training, data security training, HIPAA training, and many other forms of awareness training on privacy and security topics. Professor Solove also posts at his blog at LinkedIn. His blog has more than 1 million followers.

Professor Solove is the organizer, along with Paul Schwartz, of the Privacy + Security Forum and International Privacy + Security Forum, annual events designed for seasoned professionals.

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