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Why clearing your browser history could land you in prison

Many of our readers have some familiarity with the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. It was passed by Congress back in 2002 to prevent people in companies under investigation from destroying incriminating documents. This federal law was prompted in large part by the Enron scandal.

A U.S. Supreme Court ruling narrowed the scope of the law somewhat. However, it can and has been used by federal prosecutors to charge people for deleting or destroying evidence even if they allegedly did so before they knew they were under investigation.

A young man who associated with Tamerlan and Dhzokhar Tsarnaev is facing four charges related to the Boston Marathon bombing. Three are for lying to authorities and one is for destroying records. Among those records, according to prosecutors, was his Internet browser history. That Sarbanes-Oxley charge alone could put the former cab driver behind bars for 20 years.

Few people here in Connecticut and throughout the Northeast likely have much sympathy for this particular defendant. However, the law can be used against people involved in far less nefarious things. Sarbanes-Oxley was also used against a college student who hacked into former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's e-mail account. In addition to a misdemeanor crime of illegally obtaining information from her computer, he was convicted of felony destruction of records. The defendant had cleared his browser, uninstalled Firefox and taken other steps to erase traces of his actions.

Certainly much of our business as well as social activity takes place on the computer and electronic devices. Some people who feel that the federal government already has too much access to our data have expressed concern about the potential use of Sarbanes-Oxley against those who delete data from their computers with no criminal intent.

An attorney for the group Electronic Frontier Foundation, whose motto is "Defending Your Rights in the Digital World," says that the law as it could potentially be enforced is akin to "open[ing] all your cupboards all the time and leav[ing] your front door unlocked and available for law enforcement inspection at any time…."

Destroying or deleting documents, files and other data can be considered obstruction of justice. Anyone who is concerned about the potential ramifications of deleting or destroying information would be wise to seek legal guidance before doing so.

Source: The Nation, "You Can Be Prosecuted for Clearing Your Browser History," Juliana DeVries, June 02, 2015

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