NEW YORK (MainStreet) This is one of those incidents that may be the proverbial canary in the coal mine. If so, it does not augur well for the future of elections.
The FBI announced earlier this month that a student from California State, San Marcos campus named Matthew Weaver, 22 of Huntington Beach, Ca., was sentenced to one year in prison for engaging in identity theft while trying to steal a campus election. He wanted to become student body president and engaged in some high tech voter fraud to do so.
Weaver stole the identities and passwords of his fellow students. He then used them to access e-mail and Facebook accounts which enabled him to cast about 630 votes for himself and for his friends who also were on the ballot.
He used a small electronic device known as a keylogger to obtain the information. A keylogger is a type of surveillance software that records keystrokes to a log file. It also records instant messages, email, and any information typed at any time using a keyboard. The log file can then be sent to a specified receiver. Some will also record email addresses used and Website URLs visited.
These devices are often used by employers to ensure employees are not using company computers to cruise porn sites - or other non-work related uses - during work hours. Unfortunately, keyloggers can also be embedded in spyware allowing this type of information to be transmitted to an unknown third party.
Ultimately, Weaver stole 745 passwords from classmates.
He pleaded guilty in March to wire fraud, unauthorized access of a computer, and identity theft. Apparently showing little remorse and still trying to be the smartest person in the room, Weaver continued to deny his crime. He even went so far, in Clintonian fashion, to try to get sympathetic media coverage about his plight.
The judge in the case, U.S. District Judge Larry A. Burns, found this to be very disconcerting. It earned him a stiffer sentence.
It was "the phenomenal misjudgment I just can't get around," the judge told Weaver. "That's what bothers me more than the original rigging [of the election]. ...He's on fire for this crime and then he pours gasoline on it."
"Weaver ran roughshod over the privacy rights of hundreds of people so that he could indulge his vanity," said U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy. "If privacy is to mean anything in a digital age, it has to be protected. A 12-month sentence adequately warns men and women like Weaver that they cannot hide from the consequences of their actions behind youth or privilege. Everyone's rights matternot just theirs."
According to court records, the jig was up for Weaver near the end of the student body election. Network administrators noticed unusual voting activity associated with a computer on campus. The administrators were able to determine that the user, later identified as Weaver, was cutting and pasting student usernames and passwords from an Excel spreadsheet into the VOTE system and then casting those students' votes.
The administrators asked campus police to go to the location of the suspicious computer. A campus police officer found Weaver sitting at the computer and noted that he was the only one with a computer screen not visible to the rest of the room.
The campus police officer arrested Weaver. He also seized his bag, which contained six keyloggers, as well as other evidence of the crimes, according to the FBI.
"It is amazing what the world has become when people who are talented use that talent to steal school elections," said Ronald Rotunda, a law professor at Chapman University law school in Orange, Ca. and an authority on constitutional laws and privacy issues.
The fact that after his arrest Weaver continued to try to incriminate innocent people for his crime outraged Rotunda.
"The Ten Commandants do not forbid all lies," said Rotunda. "They forbid 'bearing false witness' a particular heinous type of lie: falsely blaming others."
This case is particularly poignant at a time that intrusions into privacy for counterterrorism are being debated in the public square. It is ironic then that the federal prosecutor in this case mentioned privacy.
U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy said, "If privacy is to mean anything in a digital age, it has to be protected."
What was that again about the NSA? Is some privacy more equal than others?
--Written by Michael P. Tremoglie for MainStreet