The search came only days after foreign hackers made public 250 gigabytes of files and data that were stolen from police computers in late April. The hackers demanded a $4 million ransom payment to return all the files — which include identifying information on current and former officers, details on gang investigations, and more — but D.C. was said to offer only $100,000.
It remains unclear who the person of interest is and why exactly police were looking for them. A spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Police Department demurred on offering any information on the person “as this remains under active investigation.”
But some civil libertarians say they are worried that the police may be casting a wide net in the investigation into the hacking and its aftermath, and could even seek to prosecute people who merely share files the hackers stole and made public.
“There’s nothing illegal about pointing to or reposting or retweeting info you find online,” said Jennifer Stisa Granick, an attorney with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project. “But usually there is some effort by people who don’t want that information out there to find a legal hook.”
In this case, Granick says that legal hook could be the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, a federal law dating to the mid-1980s that broadly criminalizes accessing or taking information from computers without authorization — hacking, in short. Granick says the law is vaguely worded and has been used in the past to prosecute journalists and activists who obtain sensitive or embarrassing government documents. (Late last year the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in a case touching on the breadth of the law.)
“There’s a real chilling effect when people hear police are tweeting out pictures of people saying reposting information is a cause for investigation,” she said.
In related news, the D.C. Police Union says it will file a class grievance against the city for the hacking and subsequent publication of the MPD files, which included identifying and possibly compromising details on at least 25 current and former police officers.
“Our members’ information is protected by law and by our agreement with the city. It seems that they are unable to maintain this agreement or be trusted with protecting our data,” the union said in a statement last week. “Moving forward, it will be important to understand how this occurred, as well as how it could be prevented in the future.”