Let's remove the legal shield from hackers who rob us of our civil rights

Let's remove the legal shield from hackers who rob us of our civil rights
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Hackers are wreaking havoc in our politics and our culture — and outdated laws actually protect them from facing justice.

While the U.S. government suffers tens of thousands of cyber attacks, and news and entertainment companies face the same, three recent high-profile hacks illustrate the extreme dangers to individuals and our society as a whole.

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The chairman of Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump rallies in Nevada amid Supreme Court flurry: 'We're gonna get Brett' Trump: 'Good news' that Obama is campaigning again Trump boosts Heller, hammers 'Wacky Jacky' opponent in Nevada MORE’s 2016 campaign, John Podesta, was hacked in March 2016 and his emails published on WikiLeaks. Those private conversations showed the apparent disdain of the Democratic Party elite for Clinton’s challenger Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersTrump's trade war — firing all cannons or closing the portholes? The Hill's 12:30 Report — Trump rips 'ridiculous' spending bill | FBI dragged into new fight | Latest on Maryland shooting Poll: Most Massachusetts voters don't think Warren should run for president in 2020 MORE, angering young supporters of the independent Vermont senator and likely hurting voter turnout for Clinton. Last week, the Department of Justice announced indictments against 12 Russian intelligence agency officials for this election-related attack.

 

Sony Pictures Entertainment was hacked in November 2014, locking employees out of their computers and spilling their private emails across the internet. Film producer Scott Rudin and former Sony Chair Amy Pascal ultimately had to apologize for their candid, private thoughts that were exposed by the hacking. Out of caution, Sony canceled the release of Seth Rogen’s film, “The Interview,” which poked fun at North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, though the film later opened in largely independent theaters. North Korea denied masterminding the hack, but federal officials believe otherwise.

Former Republican National Committee finance chairman Elliott Broidy was hacked this spring and his private emails were sent to media outlets. In a lawsuit filed in Los Angeles, Broidy alleged that Qatar financed “cyber mercenaries” — reportedly recruited by a former CIA spy and his U.S.-based security firm — to hack his phones and computers. Federal investigators also believe Qatar is behind the hack as an act of revenge for Broidy’s questioning Qatar’s funding of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas.

These hacks may have come from North Korea, Russia and Qatar, but they have in common the effect of lost jobs, reputational ruin, economic and political losses — and complete immunity for the foreign hackers.

Under current law, foreign governments and offshore lackeys they hire are immune from lawsuits or criminal charges in the United States. This is based on sovereign immunity, the sensible and ancient doctrine that holds that foreign governments cannot be sued in U.S. courts except in special circumstances. It’s time to update this body of law and add to the special circumstances. In this digital age, foreign powers should not be able to disrupt elections or destroy the livelihoods of U.S. citizens with impunity.

There is a vital civil rights dimension to the hacking issue. In the late 1950s, a segregationist southern state government sued the NAACP, demanding the names of its donors and internal communications. The goal was simply insidious: if the secret donors and their communications were revealed, they could be targeted for ridicule, job loss and even violence. In NAACP v. Alabama, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the civil rights organization’s right to keep its donors and documents from public view.

The high court recognized that Americans must be able to have private communications to advance the cause of civil rights and the public good. Activists need to deliberate and debate in private before they can achieve anything in the public forum.

If the internet had existed in the civil rights era, what would have stopped segregationists from hiring foreign hackers to break into the NAACP’s servers, steal its confidential communications, and leak those internal documents to the media? Then, those fighting for equal rights would have endured endless attacks and intimidations. Some, sadly, would have decided, for the good of their families or the hope of keeping their jobs, to abandon the cause.

Something similar is happening today. The Sony hack cost executives their jobs and embarrassed producers while sending the message to Hollywood: “Don’t criticize North Korea.” The Podesta and Clinton hacks may have cost the Democratic nominee the 2016 presidential election, and it certainly caused sharp divisions in the Democratic Party. The hacking of the RNC finance chairman weakened the GOP’s ability to raise money, and caused people personal pain.

The fear of cyber criminals and the harm they can inflict could drive good men and women from becoming involved in our nation’s politics, which is the hacker’s goal. Congress needs to remove the legal shield from hackers. If not, many more careers likely will be ruined, more elections rigged and more members of the public will walk away without trying to do their part to improve our nation.

Niger Innis is the national spokesman for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), a 75-year-old civil rights organization, and a co-founder of the NevadansCAN Network, a grassroots network of concerned Nevada citizen-activists.