A 38-year old Kentucky man has been sentenced to five months in prison and two years probation after hacking into accounts on the SodaHead.com social networking site to change comments that held conservative views*.
His lawyer dubbed him the Robin Hood of pranksters. Federal prosecutors characterized him as a computer hacker engaged in cyberbullying.
And a federal judge found him in violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and sentenced him to five months in prison and two years on probation. Michael Pullen has to report on Oct. 21 to a federal work camp in Ashland.
What got the 38-year-old father of two from Dry Ridge in trouble was breaking into people’s accounts on the social networking site SodaHead.com and changing posts that espoused conservative views.
Pullen said he would replace posts he considered racist or homophobic with something like, “I’m super fancy. Why don’t you call me fancy pants?”
Pullen became a prolific user of SodaHead.com after being laid off from his job in 2009, according to Kentucky.com. He said he became concerned with the tone of some of the comments. After starting out by debating his points and posting comments legally, he eventually learned how to take over accounts and decided to change the comments himself.
“I would go in there and poke holes in their arguments,” Pullen said.
After a few months Pullen learned how to take control of other users’ accounts by exploiting a known bug in SodaHead.com’s software. That’s when he realized there was an opportunity for some tomfoolery. Pullen said he targeted the accounts of people who are intolerant of others.
“They were saying these devious, dastardly things like, ‘I can’t wait for the second Civil War so I can shoot me a liberal,’ ” Pullen said.
Pullen claims that he only hacked into others’ accounts for two weeks and that “it was all just meant to be funny,” according to Cincinnati.com. “I never meant to hurt, in any way, anybody. It was just kind of tweaking these folks – popping their balloons, so to speak.”
But a former director of technical operations at SodaHead.com who testified at Pullen’s sentencing said that had the actions continued, it would have posed a threat to the company, according to Kentucky.com. “We realized it could kill our business,” said Arthur Clements, who is now a contract employee for SodaHead.com.
One outspoken critic of the the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) said the law was actually properly applied in this case, though it’s unclear if Pullen’s actions caused any actual harm. From Kentucky.com:
Eric Goldman, a Santa Clara University School of Law professor and director of the High Tech Law Institute in Silicon Valley, is an outspoken critic of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, known as the CFAA, but said it appears to have been properly applied in Pullen’s case. But, Goldman noted, it isn’t clear if Pullen’s games were harmful.
“This is a fairly straightforward application of the law,” Goldman said. “We might want some type of restriction against accessing someone’s private space on a computer — even if it is done as a prank. There was probably some teeth gnashing, but what other damages were incurred from his intrusion?”
Pullen’s attorney meanwhile has said the case is “an enormous waste of taxpayer money.”
In addition to prison and probation time, Pullen was ordered to pay $21,000 in restitution to SodaHead.com.
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