Fort Lauderdale Cyber Crime Attorney on Protecting Your Personal Data

January 27, 2009 by David S. Seltzer

An unusual story caught my eye this morning on Apparently, a man from New Zealand bought an mp3 player from a thrift store in Oklahoma, only to discover that the player was pre-loaded with confidential U.S. military files. The information on the player included long lists of soldiers' names, contact information and Social Security numbers; mission briefings; and lists of equipment sent to war zones. The military is still investigating whether the information truly is top secret, but the man who bought the player told CNN that he'd be happy to return it if asked to do so.

Fortunately, the story suggests that the man isn't being prosecuted for this security breach (if there is one). But as a cyber crime criminal defense lawyer in South Florida, I can easily imagine ways in which he could have been. For one thing, unauthorized possession of classified information could be considered an espionage crime, particularly since the man is a foreign national. Just speaking to the New Zealand or U.S. press about it could trigger further spying charges, whose penalties include decades in prison, confiscation of any property the government believes is related and certain revocation of any visa issued to this man.

Even devices that don't come pre-loaded with classified information may still cause problems for unwitting buyers. For example, possessing a long list of names and Social Security numbers could trigger identity theft charges brought by a prosecutor who doesn't believe the information really came with the player. Or, let's say the man found child pornography on the player. Merely possessing child pornography is a crime, and authorities are generally unsympathetic to people they believe are child sex offenders. All of this could add up to a wrongful prosecution and possible criminal conviction, which would then trigger the same immigration problems and potential federal and Florida asset forfeiture.

As a Miami cyber crime defense lawyer, I find that most of my clients and colleagues don't realize how hard it is to truly erase things from a data drive, even a small flash drive like this mp3 player (which is basically a "memory stick" with headphones). Even reformatting a hard drive doesn't truly erase files, which can be found and restored by computer experts. To completely obliterate data that could constitute a security breach, experts recommend several rounds of formatting, overwriting with meaningless data and reformatting. Even better is physically or magnetically destroying the disk.

In fact, the U.S. military has standards for erasing drives containing classified information -- standards that must not have been followed in this case. I am glad that so far, no innocent people are being prosecuted as a result.