Palin's e-mail hacker indicted, to be kept offline

How do the feds prevent someone from using the Internet?

Published October 9, 2008 7:00PM (EDT)

Yesterday, one David C. Kernell, a 20-year-old undergraduate at the University of Tennessee, was indicted by a federal grand jury on one count of "intentionally accessing without authorization the e-mail account of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin."

Following his indictment, he was released, but the federal court imposed several conditions, which were confirmed to me by Sharry Dedman-Beard, a spokesperson for the United States Department of Justice, Eastern District of Tennessee. Kernell is  restricted to traveling  only within Eastern Tennessee and he must not have any contact with Gov. Sarah Palin or her family.

However, there are some technological restrictions as well: Kernell cannot possess a computer. That being said, he can access e-mail and  use the Internet only for classwork.

But how is this restriction enforced?

Essentially on the honor system.

As Laura Sweeney, a spokesperson for the Department of Justice, told me by phone: "His probation officer will monitor the situation and will report to the court any violation."

In other words, there's no special software, no special method used to monitor how and where and when Kernell uses the Internet. But if he gets busted, he'll be in even hotter water than he already is.

Adrián Lamo, who pleaded guilty to one count of computer crimes against Microsoft and the New York Times in 2004, told me that he basically had this same experience.

As he told me by e-mail, it's beyond the capacity of the feds to monitor each possible occasion that one might have to go online.

"When I sat down with them, [the federal agents] looked at me and told me, 'Now, you might go online from a friend's house - but if you do, we'll know.'  It was a clear lie, designed to ensure optimal compliance with the court order.

"So it comes down to this - it's an honor system. I honored it as best I could, and my college instructors were very nice about giving me very open-ended nebulous assignments, but I stuck to the letter and spirit as far as I'm concerned, and a court agreed with my interpretation when the government raised a fuss."

Just to be sure, I also spoke with Jennifer Granick, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who told me essentially the same thing. In cases where she's represented clients who have had similar restrictions imposed, there are surprisingly "low-tech solutions" to restricting Internet access.

"In one of my cases there was a rule that the defendant  was allowed to use a computer but wasn't allowed  to connect to the internet, so they used a special court-printed tape," she said. "They would come to the house and would see if it had been messed with. Many of the court systems are very low tech. Some of it has more to do with the technological expertise of people who work there -- they're not familiar with keyloggers or monitoring software that people might think of as more common in corporate America. Instead of having people who install these types of monitoring devices that are onto the defendant's computers -- they do something that they can understand."

By Cyrus Farivar

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