State of New Jersey drops Tidbit inquiry
Subpoenaed undergrad had been suspected of hijacking computers
The state of New Jersey has agreed to drop its investigation into Tidbit after previously issuing a subpoena to Jeremy Rubin ’16 requiring that he turn over the program’s source code, log files, and other information.
Rubin, whose team designed Tidbit at a hackathon in Nov. 2013, wrote on his blog that he is “relieved,” but that he’s “sad that [his] ‘showdown’ with the state of New Jersey went so far in the first place.”
Tidbit was intended to eventually allow client websites to use their visitors’ unused processing power to mine bitcoin, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, whose attorney represented Rubin in court. The revenue earned through bitcoin mining would offset the need for advertisements.
New Jersey was worried about the effects the tool could have on web users in the state. “[Tidbit’s] own description of its services strongly suggests that [it is], in fact, designed to hijack consumer’s computers,” the state wrote in a brief responding to Rubin’s motion challenging the subpoena.
The Superior Court of New Jersey ultimately ruled in favor of the state, citing the “broad scope” of the relevant statute.
The court expressed reservation in its opinion, however: “The Court has serious concerns that the [State of New Jersey], with this investigation, may be acting to discourage creative and ‘cutting edge’ new technology. [I]t appears that the Tidbit program and other similar creative endeavors serve a useful and legitimate purpose.” The court also acknowledged, though, that the software “could also be subject to abuse and misuse.”
Rubin and others believe that the subpoena might have done more harm than the State of New Jersey intended. He wrote that another company, 21, has raised $116 million dollars toward their plans to use consumer devices to mine bitcoin.
“Had we not stopped operations due to the burden of fighting the subpoena, who knows! Perhaps we would have been able to capitalize on our first-mover advantage.”
He’d had high hopes for the software: “Tidbit’s design hoped to eliminate the need for advertising on websites, also eliminating the incentives for websites to violate their users’ privacy to make advertisements more lucrative,” he wrote on his website.
MIT faculty members, administrators, and students had all sent letters to the state of New Jersey requesting that they withdraw the subpoena.
“We urge your office to reexamine the need to subpoena and impose interrogatories on the Tidbit students” President L. Rafael Reif, Provost Marty Schmidt PhD ’88, and Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart PhD ’88 wrote in a letter to John J. Hoffman, New Jersey’s acting attorney general.
“[A]n undue chilling effect arising from the subpoena and interrogatories served on Mr. Rubin will have adverse consequences in New Jersey as surely as at MIT.”
Last week’s settlement required Rubin to disclose a minimal amount of information and agree to pay a $25,000 fine in the event that Tidbit violates the agreement by engaging in “unfair or deceptive acts” or accessing computers of persons in New Jersey without consent.