Deleting browser history can land you in prison for a very long time

Deleting browser history can land you in prison for a very long time

CultureDecember 01, 2016 By Brian Frederick

You’ve done it, she’s done it, they’ve all done it — deleted browser history. For whatever reason, be it a bogged down computer or you just really are ashamed of who you’ve become as an adult, there are sometimes a few electronic tracks that need to be cleaned up.

But doing so is a crime, and continues to make its way into cases around the nation. It isn’t a petty crime, either. People who do it have found themselves facing two decades behind bars. It's what America has deemed an appropriate punishment for clicking that cleanup button.

The reality of the situation came to light more than 6 years ago after a University of Tennessee student by the name of David Kernell correctly answered a few security questions on Yahoo to gain access of Sarah Palin’s email account. While he was in there, he downloaded a few photos, rearranged some things and hilariously changed her password to “popcorn.”

Afterwards, he dipped out and did what anyone else would do after knowingly acting on something he probably shouldn’t have. He deleted what was downloaded and reset his browser history. He thought he’d be free and clear at this point, but he was not.

Kernell was eventually found by federal prosecutors and charged with unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer, a misdemeanor. But those coming after him weren’t happy enough with a light charge, so they summoned the help of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 — an act passed after that whole Enron debacle written to target corporate scandals. It basically says no one can destroy evidence that might be used in a federal investigation at any time, for any reason (even if someone isn’t aware there’s an investigation currently ongoing).

That obstruction of justice charge is a felony, and eventually Kernell was sentenced to custody in a halfway house by presiding judge Thomas Phillips — a sentence later overturned by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons that sent him to prison for a year instead.

The fact that Kernell deleted his browser history before an investigation even began had no effect on how prosecutors went forward with the case. With the way the Sarbanes-Oxley Act is written, it doesn’t matter.

Opponents of it are quick to point out a few flaws in the way this thing is built. For one, it was intended to combat corporate messes like that of Enron’s, not to attack private citizens. Two, the way it can be used is an exceptionally broad stroke with few limitations.

Oftentimes the scenario is brought up that, if someone unknowingly downloads child pornography and deletes it immediately for obvious reasons, a federal investigation that somehow leads back to that person can empower the act and thus place a very innocent man or woman in prison for doing the right thing.

For now, that hasn’t happened. The act, however, was controversially used again on 24-year-old Khairullozhon Matanov, a friend of the Boston Bombers who understandably tried to distance himself from the duo after he realized they were the terrorists who killed 3 people and maimed dozens more with pressure cooker bombs at the annual running event.

In June of 2015, Matanov was sentenced to 30 months in federal prison for "destroying, altering, and falsifying records, documents, and tangible objects in a federal investigation, specifically information on his computer" and three counts of "making materially false, fictitious, and fraudulent statements in a federal terrorism investigation," the U.S. Attorney's office said in a statement.

Through the investigation, it was found that he had absolutely nothing to do with the bombings, and had no prior knowledge of them either. He just so happened to be friends with 2 evil men, and wanted to rid any ties. Matanov, therefore, deleted his own property before he knew about an investigation.

It’s easy to look at these two instances and say: “Well, they should have known.” Maybe so, however in Kernell’s case, it was just a stupid prank — something anyone can do at any time with how email security features are set up. And Matanov, he just didn’t want anything to do with killers. He was proven to have no idea that anything he owned would be used as evidence in the case against Dzokhar Tsarnaev (one of the convicted bombers).

These both are rare and exceptionally extreme cases. Though what would stop prosecutors from being able to imprison you for deleting a text message that came from an acquaintance that read: “sup, I’ve got Molly”? You may not even like the kid, but the dealer, for some reason, messages everyone because that’s what his marketing plan is to sell more drugs.

Deleting said message is technically tampering with evidence. And if that dude happens to fall into some sort of federal trap, like he’s selling the stuff over state lines or someone happens to die because he’s an idiot, then you’re involved whether you like it or not. And being in that unfortunate position could net you up to 20 years in the clink.

Is it likely? No. But it’s yet another awkward entry on the running list of ‘what ifs’ we have to worry about in this country.

Keep this all in mind the next time you want your laptop to run a little smoother. By clicking [OK], you might have just become a felon.