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We’ve all heard this sage advice at one time or another:

“Don’t put anything on the Internet that you wouldn’t want publicly associated with you.”

We are reminded daily of the consequences of posting things online that can come back to haunt us and try desperately to pass this knowledge onto our children. However, do we ever think about the daily searches we make on the Internet? Or, more specifically, any ramifications we could face if we erase those daily searches in our browser history? The federal government certainly does. So, before you hit the “Clear History” tab today, read on.

Case in point – the Sarbanes-Oxley Act created in the early 2000s. This bill was passed (by US Congressmen Paul Sarbanes and Michael Oxley) in response to the infamous Enron scandal. This security legislation’s main purpose is to prevent any illegal financial information from being tampered with. However, Section 802 of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act is particularly interesting and states severe penalties will occur if an individual:

“alters, destroys, mutilates, conceals, covers up, falsifies, or makes a false entry in any record, document, or tangible object with the intent to impede, obstruct, or influence the investigation or proper administration of any matter within the jurisdiction of any department or agency of the United States or in relation to or contemplation of any such matter or case, shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both.”



However, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act is now being used to prosecute people in other areas of criminal activity – not just financial fraud. The legislation has been used in the Boston Marathon Bombings trial and the case of Khairullozhon Matanov, a former taxi driver who ate dinner with suspects Tamerlan and Dhzokhar Tsarnaev the night of the bombings. According to The Nation, Matanov allegedly told lies to the police, including when he and Tamerlan had last prayed together. He then cleared his Internet browser history and deleted videos from his computer. In 2014, a year later, Matanov was never alleged to be involved in the bombings or that he knew about them beforehand, however – under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act – he was charged with four counts of obstruction of justice, with one count for destroying any record, document, or tangible object with intent to obstruct a federal investigation.

According to the Verge such broad interpretations of a this law, that was originally meant for corporate fraud scandals, now points to bigger questions of what the federal government’s access to citizens’ data should actually involve. The interpretation of Section 802 makes it possible to charge citizens, like Matanov, for deleting data at any point in time, where it could end up becoming evidence at a later date. This sets a shaky precedent for future criminal investigations, in any area. Using the Sarbanes-Oxley Act to restore faith in our financial system and corporate governance is one thing. However, using the same piece of legislation to potentially incriminate citizens for doing something that millions of people around the world do as routine computer maintenance is something else entirely.

So here’s the question: If someone truly doesn’t know they are deleting something on their computer that could be of use in a future criminal investigation, can/should they still face legal trouble? Thoughts?




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