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Hacks or Hackers?

By Kimberly Fields

Tor Ekeland, an attorney who represents defendants in federal prosecutions under the Computer Fraud & Abuse Act; Scott Klein, senior editor of news applications at ProPublica; and Isaac Wolf, a national reporter for Scripps News, talked about the ethical issues surrounding web scraping during the session “Hacks or Hackers?

Here are some of the highlights:

  • Assume you are going to be challenged: Wolf recently was threatened under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) after he and his news team scrapped 170,000 files, finding a data breach and fraudulent signatures. CFAA prohibits unauthorized access to protected computers. Wolf and his team were prepared for the threat and were able to demonstrate that they were using the information for a journalistic purpose.
  • Don’t create straw people: If you do, your results could end up slanted or misconstrued.
  • Always tell the truth: If you have to give a fake ID, omit the fact that you’re a journalist, or lie about who you are to get information, you’re creating a misrepresentation. Wolf advises journalists to always tell the truth, especially when they’re trying to collect information.
  • When scraping, consider a few things: Do you have to bypass any firewalls? Is the information clearly in the public domain and meant for public viewing? Do you have to manipulate the URL to get this information? If you answered yes, no, and yes then there’s a chance you’re about to cross an ethical line and could be challenged under the law.
  • Know the law: Because the CFAA is vague and there isn't a clear definition of “unauthorized access,” journalists can easily be challenged under the law and should keep it in mind while scraping.
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