Accusations that a political candidate used his computer to get private information is sparking debate about what is personal in cyberspace.
The charges stem from a feud between DMI Computer systems manager Tom Jones and Kootenai County commissioner candidate Reed Simpson.
At issue is how Simpson obtained a list of DMI customers’ computer e-mail addresses that he used in a controversial mass cyber-mailing.
The tug-of-war since has degenerated to formal accusations of theft and counter charges of “computer terrorism.”
Jones won’t speak publicly about the incident, but filed a criminal complaint against Simpson on Friday. The police report said Jones believes Simpson accessed DMI’s computer system to obtain customer accounts.
The candidate, a computer virtuoso, maintains “creative thinking” - not law-breaking - led him to the e-mail addresses.
Law enforcement officials, meanwhile, suspect they increasingly will be called upon to referee such quarrels.
“Computer crime is a very gray and volatile area,” said Deputy Prosecutor Lansing Haynes.
His office is investigating the complaint.
Computer experts say the issue involves more than just the law.
“There are ethical boundaries here,” said John Titer, with Internet provider First Step Research in Moscow. “But I don’t think they’re very well drawn.”
Dan Ferguson, at Netlink Inc., acknowledged “we seem to be in some unprecedented territory.”
Simpson’s trouble started April 11, when he sent a political questionnaire to thousands of Inland Northwest Internet users.
Mass mail - sometimes termed “spam” - is an Internet faux pas because it floods computer users with unsolicited messages.
Simpson promised not to send more mail to those who didn’t want it, but Jones and other area Internet providers - Computech and Netlink Inc. - still fielded angry calls from computer users.
Jones, in particular, was incensed. He claimed to have told Simpson not to send the mail in the first place.
Last week, Simpson sent follow-up mail to a handful of the people he mailed in April. When one message went to DMI, Jones went to the police, complaining about “computer crime.”
Ferguson, at Netlink, doesn’t see it that way.
“E-mail addresses are not private property,” said Ferguson. “There’s an identity protected behind it. E-mail doesn’t give you names, phone numbers and social security numbers.
But Jones’ complaint with Coeur d’Alene police contends the issue isn’t so much the addresses themselves, but how Simpson got them.
“These customer accounts are private and not public record,” Jones told police.
Titer agrees the issue centers around how Simpson came by the information. But if Jones didn’t hide it well, it’s Jones’ own fault, he said.
“If it’s information that’s out there and that’s just not protected wellenough, it’s probably not unethical to access it,” Titer said. “If it’s protected by some means and someone breaks a password … that’s a totally different story.”
Simpson won’t say how he found the addresses, but maintains there are other ways - including running a random sample - and that none of them require cracking secret codes or passwords.
“Nobody’s broken in to anything,” he said. “That’s been my position since the beginning.”
He said he’s been victimized by Jones, who retaliated by sending via e-mail an “atomic bomb” that hit Simpson’s computer system. When Simpson’s messages hit Jones’ e-mail address, “it sends the messages back infinitely.
“It’s a volcano of stuff,” Simpson said. “It’s the equivalent of sticking a chunk of dynamite in a mailbox.”
Simpson also is angry at Jones for questioning his mail in the first place. Jones “stepped into the role of cyber cop” when Internet providers aren’t supposed to “defend or criticize” users, he said. He called it “censorship.”
But Titer said Jones could have done worse. He could have shut Simpson out of his server and blocked all mail to his customers.
“It’s our power to do that that keeps others from trying to send out mass mailings,” he said.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo
Click here to comment on this story »