Blown To Bits

Should Using a Proxy Make a Crime Worse?

Wednesday, April 15th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

Federal sentencing guidelines are being modified to provide that using an Internet “proxy” to commit a crime should be taken as evidence that you are a particularly evil and devious sort of criminal and should get a stiffer sentence.

Proxies are simply machines that sit between your computer and the Internet for the purpose of making you appear to be elsewhere. People in oppressive regimes use proxies such as Tor to surf the Web while hiding their IP addresses. Corporations use proxies so their employees can work from home but have the access privileges that ordinarily come from being on-site. Proxies are used everywhere to enhance the privacy of Internet communications.

And that’s a problem, apparently, according to the folks revising the sentencing guidelines, because of course criminals can use proxies to hide their footprints. How do you handle a technology that can be used for both good and ill? Short of banning it, you can say that IF you use it to commit a crime, the crime is worse than if you didn’t use it. Says¬†John Morris, general counsel for the Center for Democracy and Technology, “This is the government saying, ‘If you take normal steps to protect your privacy, we’re going to view you as a more sophisticated criminal.'”

What’s the point? Criminals are unlikely to cooperate by making their criminal acts more traceable so as to reduce their sentences if they get caught. Instead, proxies will get a bad reputation, as things that are risky or anti-social to use. In fact we should be encouraging proxies, and encryption, and other privacy-protecting technologies.

But it is a tricky argument to make, because this clause in the sentencing guidelines is irrelevant to anyone who hasn’t committed a crime — except that it is part of a general push to force all Internet activities more out in the open where the government can watch it. And us.

Here is the regulation itself (PDF, see pages 5-15). Thanks to Slashdot for the pointer.

3 Responses to “Should Using a Proxy Make a Crime Worse?”

  1. Andrew A. Says:

    I don’t like the approach of these kind of laws that aim to fix one problem by attacking another issue. The problem that we want fixed is some crime done with a computer, not using proxies. As you stated in your article, there are many legitimate uses for proxies. I believe that proving a defendant used a proxy connection in the commission of a crime would help demonstrate the defendant’s intentions and knowledge that the act they were committing is not allowed. Otherwise, why would someone go to the trouble of trying to mask their identity with a proxy? They wouldn’t. If this logic were demonstrated by the prosecutor in court, the judge and jury should be more likely to convict the defendant. Clearly, a crime that someone accidentally commits should carry less severe punishment than a crime committed with planning and knowledge that the act was wrong. If the government wants to increase the punishment for serious computer crimes, perhaps they should just increase the sentencing guidelines for “first degree” premeditated, intentional computer crimes, and allow the prosecution to present evidence of proxy use as evidence of the defendant’s intentions. This seems to achieve the goal of increasing penalties for computer crimes, without punishing unrelated and legitimate proxy use.

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