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Attention, Geeks: You Are Not Lawyers

Apparently, there are enough geeks out there with misguided notions about the law that Paul Ohm thinks he ought to do something about it. Ohm, an associate professor of law at the University of Colorado Law School, is launching a new series of posts on Freedom to Tinker, a blog hosted by Princeton's Center for Information Technology Policy, that he is calling YANAL, for "You Are Not a Lawyer." "In this series," he explains, "I will try to disabuse computer scientists and other technically minded people of some commonly held misconceptions about the law (and the legal system)."

He kicks off the series with a brief primer on the difference between the criminal law standards for acquittal and search. Why? Because these same misguided geeks apparently are so focused on beating the rap that they forget how much trouble they can get into well before going to trial.

When techies think about criminal law, and in particular crimes committed online, they tend to fixate on this legal standard, dreaming up ways people can use technology to inject doubt into the evidence to avoid being convicted. I can't count how many conversations I have had with techies about things like the "open wireless access point defense," the "trojaned computer defense," the "NAT-ted firewall defense," and the "dynamic IP address defense." Many people have talked excitedly to me about tools like TrackMeNot or more exotic methods which promise, at least in part, to inject jail-springing reasonable doubt onto a hard drive or into a network.

But the people who place stock in these theories are neglecting a key drawback, Ohm says. While the standard of proof for conviction may be tough, the standards governing search and seizure are more lenient.

So by the time you've had your Perry Mason moment in front of the jurors, somehow convincing them that the fact that you don't enable WiFi authentication means your neighbor could've sent the death threat, your life will have been turned upside down in many ways: The police will have searched your home and seized all of your computers. They will have examined all of the files on your hard drives and read all of the messages in your inboxes. ... They will have arrested you and possibly incarcerated you pending trial. Guys with guns will have interviewed you and many of your friends, co-workers, and neighbors.

The moral of Ohm's inaugural message to all those legally misguided geeks out there is simple. Even if they can't put you away, they can sure mess up your life. And that sounds like something even a geek can understand.

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on February 11, 2009 at 10:41 AM | Permalink | Comments (2)

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