After being put on administrative leave for threatening to assassinate president-elect Donald Trump, the CEO of a network security firm has resigned after what he claims was a joke threat to shoot Trump went viral.
Matt Harrigan, the now former CEO and President of San Diego network anomaly detection security firm PacketSled, had posted on Facebook, “I’m going to kill the president. Elect.” This rapidly went viral across the internet; and a few days later he resigned from his firm.
Harrigan was clearly upset at the result of the presidential election. He reacted on his Facebook page. Comments included, “Really San Diego? Trump? Go fuck yourself San Diego.” But when it was suggested that he needed to calm down (“You just need to get high”), he went over the top.
“Nope, getting a sniper rifle and perching myself where it counts. Find a bedroom in the whitehouse that suits you motherfucker. I’ll find you.”
That Facebook page has been deleted; but it’s too late. Whatever is posted on the Internet generally stays there, somewhere; and Harrigan has suffered the consequences. On Monday 14 November, PacketSled announced that it had “immediately reported this information to the secret service and will cooperate fully with any inquiries… Our CEO has been placed on administrative leave.”
One day later PacketSled stated, “The PacketSled Board of Directors accepted the resignation of President and CEO Matthew Harrigan, effective immediately.” The firm’s current CTO will act as interim CEO while the BoD seeks a permanent replacement.
Harrigan himself had already publicly apologized, Sunday, on his Twitter account. “My humble apologies that a flawed joke has become public/out of context. My poor judgement does not represent the views of @packetsled, customers, investors or the officers of @packetsled. I have no malicious intention towards the #POTUS, and apologize to all for my lack of judgement and offensive commentary. I wish you all well.”
This is not the first time that an Internet joke has backfired. In January 2010, the UK Robin Hood Airport was closed by bad weather. Paul Chambers, who had intended to travel on one of the canceled flights, reacted on Twitter: “Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!!”
This wasn’t picked up by law enforcement until a week later. The airport did not consider it more than a joke, but contacted the police. From there it escalated. Chambers was arrested by anti-terror police, and his phone, laptop and hard drive were confiscated. He was later charged under the Communications Act 2003, found guilty and ordered to pay a fine (£385) and costs (£600). Like Harrigan, Chambers also lost his job.
The San Diego Union-Tribune reported Monday, “The U.S. Secret Service is aware of Harrigan’s social media posts but otherwise declined to comment.” If any US law enforcement agency decides to take action against Harrigan, he could face a fine and/or imprisonment of up to five years under United States Code Title 18, Section 871. This makes it clear that threatening a US President or President-elect is a felony.
There is precedent. In 2008 Walter Bagdasarian threatened that Obama “will have a .50 cal in the head soon.” He too claimed that his comments were not to be taken seriously. His lawyers also suggested that his writings were protected by the First Amendment; but the US Attorney’s Office responded that simply making the threats made him guilty, and they should be taken seriously because they were very specific. Bagdasarian was eventually sentenced to two months in a halfway house. Harrigan’s joke post is also very specific. One hopeful element, however, is that Bagdasarian’s conviction was later reversed on appeal.
There is a lesson here for everyone. It is hard to imagine anyone who should be more aware of the potential effect of unguarded moments on the internet. PacketSled markets a network anomaly detection product. Harrigan is credited with inventing the practice of commercial penetration testing in Kevin Poulsen’s book ‘Kingpin’. He is steeped in security. He was named to the San Diego Cyber Center of Excellence board of directors in October, although this has now been revoked. The simple reality is that the First Amendment is not a blanket right; and mistakes on the Internet will almost certainly be discovered, whoever you are.
In July, PacketSled announced that it had closed a $5 million Series A round of funding.