Monday, January 31, 2011


I don't know how it'll turn out, and I won't promise it as a permanent feature. But for now at least, I have a twitter account.

Now I just have to do something useful with it.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

In Brief: "WikiLeaks lawyer vows to prosecute Palin if she goes to Australia"

A lawyer associated with WikiLeaks has vowed that if Sarah Palin ever comes to Australia, he would begin a private prosecution against her for inciting violence against Julian Assange.

WikiLeaks lawyer vows to prosecute Palin if she goes to Australia: NPR « The Trial Warrior Blog

It's doomed to failure: the DPP can take over and discontinue any private prosecution. But it's still pretty hilarious.

Also, I didn't know private prosecutions were possible in Australia --- you learn something every day.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Someone, finally, to prosecute over the death of Mr Ward

Seems WorkSafe has got the guts (and the law, and the evidence, presumably) to do something.

A prosecution means that justice is seen to be done. More importantly, it reinforces that no-one is below the protection of the law; no-one is above its scrutiny. The protection of law is common to all, not just to the upright and the virtuous. And so it should be!

Whatever your thoughts on Mr Ward, the fact is that a man died. It is entirely appropriate that WorkSafe investigate whether that death was due to unsafe work practises, and prosecute if it sees fit.

I am aware that Mr Ward is no saint. But consider this: what if it had been your father in the van? Your brother? Your son? Even if they had a criminal record, even if they were being hauled off to face a drink-driving charge, wouldn't you want their death fully investigated? Wouldn't you want those responsible to face some sort of justice?

Monday, January 17, 2011

In Brief: Unauthorised use of your own computer = cracking?

Seems there must be something in the water with regards to crazy applications of anti-cracking law.

I was somewhat amazed to find lawyers for Sony arguing that (in the US at least) it is cracking to use your own computer in a way other than authorised. (Post on The Volokh Conspiracy, hat tip to Overlawyered)

Sure, it rightfully wins the "Silliest Theory of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act" award, but it highlights again the dangers of over-broad computer crime law.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Breaching an Acceptable Use Policy a Criminal Offence

We generally expect that 'hacking' --- illegally gaining access to the computer systems of another --- would be a criminal offence. (Out of deference to the computer community, 'cracking' will be used for the remainder of the post.) And we generally expect that breaking the acceptable use policy at work is something deserving --- at most --- of being fired.

However, at the core of both is the unauthorised use of a restricted-access computer system. And that is an offence under the Criminal Code (WA). Section 440A(2) reads:
(2)    For the purposes of this section a person unlawfully uses a restricted‑access computer system —
                 (a)    if the person uses it when he or she is not properly authorised to do so; or
                 (b)    if the person, being authorised to use it, uses it other than in accordance with his or her authorisation.
UPDATE: To clarify, a "restricted-access computer system" is nothing special. It's defined in the Code as:
a computer system in respect of which —
                 (a)    the use of a password is necessary in order to obtain access to information stored in the system or to operate the system in some other way; and
                 (b)    the person who is entitled to control the use of the system —
                              (i)    has withheld knowledge of the password, or the means of producing it, from all other persons; or
                             (ii)    has taken steps to restrict knowledge of the password, or the means of producing it, to a particular authorised person or class of authorised person;

So breaching an AUP could, at least conceivably, land you in jail: ss (2)(b).

But would it ever happen?
Yes, and a conviction was just upheld in the WA Supreme Court --- Giles v Douglas [2011] WASC 14.

Ms Giles was a WA police officer. While working in the Northern Territory some years ago, she met a "RA", a police officer, and they became friends. RA separated from his wife around 2002, and RA's wife took custody of their children and moved to WA. RA's wife had been abused as a child, and had drinking and domestic violence issues. Ms Giles moved to WA in 2004.

On 27 March 2009, Ms Giles was contacted by RA. He told Ms Giles that his wife had just died, and as such, he had concerns about the children.  Ms Giles set about making inquiries about the children.

Some of the inquiries she made were searches of the police database. Upon logging into this database, all users were presented with the following warning:
Information contained within the Western Australia Police Computer Systems is confidential, must not be disclosed to unauthorised persons under any circumstances and not be accessed for personal reasons. (emphasis added)
This is where she came unstuck, and ended up in court. She was charged under section 440A. She argued that accessing the database in these circumstances was a proper part of her role --- that she would have done the same for "the local butcher", if he had come in with the same story. She also argued that her supervisor had authorised the searches, or alternately that she had an honest and reasonable belief that she was authorised to do the searches.

The Magistrate didn't buy it, and Ms Giles failed in her appeal to the Supreme Court. To be clear, Ms Giles wasn't convicted for breaching police secrecy, or improper disclosure of information --- she was convicted for common cracking. She used the restricted-access system other than in accordance with her authorisation: s 440A(2)(b).

So What?
The decision is fully in accordance with the law --- although whether it's the right decision on the facts is slightly more open. Either way, it highlights the dangerous state of computer offences in WA law. The decision would seem to stand for the proposition that a breach of a contractual or workplace agreement regarding computer use amounts to criminal conduct.

That's casts the net of conduct potentially caught by the section very, very wide. For example, as well as forbidding cross-posting and unlawfully downloading copyrighted material, the acceptable use policy governing my 3G wireless modem contains the following clause:
The service is provided for interactive use. However, if automated programs or programs that maintain a persistent connection to a remote service are used, they must only be used when you are physically present at the computer. These activities include (but are not limited to) automated file downloading, IRC ‘bots’, continuous streaming media and peer­to­peer file sharing applications. (emphasis added)
So if I set the latest set of system updates downloading overnight, I'd be breaching the AUP. I'd then be accessing the restricted-access computer system belonging to my ISP in excess of my authorisation.

Would that make me a cracker? No.

Would that make me liable to criminal sanctions? It would seem so.

Is that good law?

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Words Gone Wrong: "and/or" ambiguous

Those who deal with the law quickly become obsessed with words.

One of the move overused words (or is it two words?) is "and/or". Somehow, using it has become a bit of an obsession, with people putting it in anywhere they think possible. This is not always a good thing --- not only does it sound clumsy, but it can occasionally obscure more than it reveals.

Take, for example, this piece of text, from the website of a large Australian bookstore that also sells computers.
Quantity limits apply: one desktop and/or one notebook per academic year.

Is one allowed to buy (a) one desktop and one notebook, for a total of two items; or, (b) one desktop or one notebook, for a total of one item? Either the "and" or the "or" is unnecessary and incorrect, but (short of telepathy) it's impossible to say which one.

The moral of the story is: make sure you're clear on the meaning of your sentence before shoving in an "and/or"!

Monday, January 3, 2011

Wouldn't Happen Here: driving conviction overturned on a drafting error

Only in America. (Full story at the Washington Post.)

Read (carefully!) this section of a Virginian law.
A person is guilty of reckless driving who fails to stop, when approaching from any direction, any school bus which is stopped on any highway, private road or school driveway for the purpose of taking on or discharging children.
Spot the problem? On it's face, it says a driver must stop a stopped school bus. It's missing an at; probably between "direction," and "any".

There once was an "at", but it was accidentally removed by an amendment. And that two-letter missing word was enough for one very lucky driver to have a reckless driving conviction overturned. The appeal judge, whilst wondering "if there's some latitude" in reading the law, ultimately held that "There probably isn't, because it's a criminal statute." As such, he quashed the conviction.

Now, there's some debate over whether that was the correct decision under US law. But here's why the question would never have come up in WA. The Interpretation Act 1894 (WA) provides the courts with very clear rules about how they are to interpret statutes. Section 18 provides:
In the interpretation of a provision of a written law, a construction that would promote the purpose or object underlying the written law (whether that purpose or object is expressly stated in the written law or not) shall be preferred to a construction that would not promote that purpose or object.
There is no distinction here between criminal law or civil law --- it applies to all written law. Clearly the construction preferred by the court does not promote the object of road traffic legislation.

Additionally, a court may also refer to extrinsic material in some circumstances. Extrinsic material is material not part of the Act the court is trying to interpret, such as parliamentary debate, or explanatory memorandum. Extrinsic material may be used either to confirm the ordinary meaning of a provision, or to determine the meaning of a provision when --- 
s 19(1)(b) ... 
    (i)    the provision is ambiguous or obscure; or 
    (ii)    the ordinary meaning conveyed by the text of the provision taking into account its context in the written law and the purpose or object underlying the written law leads to a result that is manifestly absurd or is unreasonable.
The construction preferred by the US court would easily be described as unreasonable. So an Australian court would have no problem finding some material explaining what the fateful amendment was supposed to do, and doing that.

So, if you find a missing preposition in an Australian law, don't bet on being able to rely on the strict, literal interpretation of the law.