Clear your browser history lately? If you did, you may have committed a federal crime and could wind up spending up to 20 years behind bars.
As ridiculous as that may seem, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, a federal statute meant to address an entirely different purpose, is now being contorted and used in a way that could affect every American who dares to delete Internet searches on their own devices.
The Sarbanes-Oxley Act was passed after the Enron scandal. Company executives, or their underlings, reportedly shredded each and every document which they felt could incriminate them, according to TheNation.com, which as part of an in-depth report explored the history behind the law and how it has been abused. It was passed with the intention of thwarting similar behavior by other corporations in the future.
The act reads, in part:
“Whoever knowingly alters, destroys, mutilates, conceals, covers up, falsifies, or makes a false entry in any record, document, or tangible object with the intent to impede, obstruct, or influence the investigation or proper administration of any matter within the jurisdiction of any department or agency of the United States or any case filed under title 11, or in relation to or contemplation of any such matter or case, shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both.”
The overreaching use of the law garnered national attention after it was utilized to bring charges against a friend of the Tsarnaev brothers, the Boston Marathon bombers.
The friend, Khairullozhon Matanov, saw their faces on news websites after the bombings and voluntarily went to police to tell them he knew the men and had had supper with them at a restaurant. That meal took place hours after the bombing. But he lied to police about several details – “he lied about whose idea it was to have dinner, lied about when exactly he had looked at the Tsarnaevs’ photos on the Internet, lied about whether Tamerlan [Tsarnaev] lived with his wife and daughter, and lied about when he and Tamerlan had last prayed together,” TheNation.com reported. Then he went home and deleted his Internet browser history.
The feds didn’t prosecute him for helping plan the bombing or even for knowing about it beforehand, but instead for obstruction of justice. He was charged with four counts – one for destroying “any record, document or tangible object” – a reference to the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.
There was no evidence he knew the bombings were going to take place, or even that he knew the brothers had committed the crime until he saw their photos.
“In other words, a person could theoretically be charged under Sarbanes-Oxley for deleting her dealer’s number from her phone even if she were unaware that the feds were getting a search warrant to find her marijuana,” TheNation.com said.
Hanni Fakhoury of the Electronic Frontiers Foundation said federal agents increasingly feel “entitled” to digital data. He said it is as if the law is saying: “Don’t even think about deleting anything that may be harmful to you, because we may come after you at some point in the future for some unforeseen reason and we want to be able to have access to that data. And if we don’t have access to that data, we’re going to slap an obstruction charge that has as 20-year maximum on you.”
You may have had lunch with a co-worker or spent time with a fellow community group member who could turn out to be a criminal in the near or distant future. If you deleted your browser history, deleted cookies, or cleared your cache due to computer problems, memory issues, or merely because you did not want your spouse to know you were browsing certain websites … you could face federal charges.
Do you agree or disagree with the law? Share your thoughts in the section below: