Computer Fraud and Abuse Act
A failed and flawed law
Technology has changed faster than the laws that exist to protect the public. Protecting information, particularly sensitive government information, was thought to be challenging and to pose additional dilemmas in terms of its regulation. With this in mind, Congress passed the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act in 1984. The CFAA “outlaws conduct that victimizes computer systems. It is a cyber-security law. It protects federal computers, bank computers, and computers connected to the Internet. It shields them from trespassing, threats, damage, espionage, and from being corruptly used as instruments of fraud” (Doyle 2014:1-2). The CFAA’s provisions ban the trespassing of data; the damaging of or use of threats to damage data; or trafficking in the passwords and other sensitive data of a wide range of computers containing protected information (Doyle 2014:1-2).
The law was passed during the pre-Internet era “as a narrow statute enacted for the reasonable goal of combating malicious hackers: people who break into computer systems and steal valuable data (like credit-card numbers) or do real economic damage” (Wu 2013). However, because of the vague wording of the law, it has been increasingly deployed by prosecutors in a much wider range of cases in a manner that makes many legal scholars profoundly uncomfortable (Wu 2013). “Over the years, Congress expanded the statute five times, adding private rights of action and making misdemeanors into felonies. Both private litigants and the Justice Department began to use the law against not only hackers but also otherwise legitimate users who violate the ‘terms of service policies that come with nearly every piece of software and service we use on computers today” (Wu 2013). Thus, the original intention and spirt of the law has been violated and needless amounts of time and energy are being diverted to prosecute relatively minor offenses.
It should be noted that when the law was first passed there was concern that legitimate whistleblowers within government departments might be prosecuted so Congress was not entirely unaware of the potential for misuse of the Act. Thus the law does not “criminalize acts in which the offending employee merely ‘exceeds authorized access to computers in his own department'” (Doyle 2014: 4). The law is limited in scope to those who are not entitled to access government computers or who engage in interdepartmental trespass. But other concerns have arisen regarding outside unauthorized use that may technically violate ‘terms of service’ agreements (which arguably are written in such a lengthy and confusing manner they are impossible for a user to truly agree to when he or she clicks a button). For example, Aaron Swartz was threatened with thirty-five years in prison because of violating terms-of-service by downloading too many academic articles as an authorized guest on the MIT network (Wu 2013). Swartz, terrified in the face of the upcoming prosecution, committed suicide as a result.
The law has been heavily criticized by a number of groups, including civil libertarian organizations. The notion of “without authorization” is not clearly defined and while the statute does define “exceeds authorized access,” there is concern that “the meaning of that phrase has been subject to considerable dispute” in the courts and is not consistently enforced (“The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act reform,” 2014). The law has also been criticized for excessively harsh penalties. “Compounding this problem is the CFAA’s disproportionately harsh penalty scheme. Even first-time offenses for accessing a protected computer without sufficient ‘authorization’ can be punishable by up to five years in prison each (ten years for repeat offenses), plus fines. Violations of other parts of the CFAA are punishable by up to ten years, 20 years, and even life in prison” even if their offenses cause no material consequences to anyone (“The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act reform,” 2014).
Despite these harsh, life-altering penalties, “the law is so open-ended and broad as to be unconstitutionally vague. Over the years, the punishments for breaking the law have grown increasingly severe — it can now put people in prison for decades for actions that cause no real economic or physical harm. It is, in short, a nightmare for a country that calls itself free” (Wu 2013). For example, when Matthew Keys, a social-media editor at Reuters, helped hackers with an online prank to change a news headline, “the damage was trivial” but Keyes was “threatened with two hundred and fifty thousand dollars in damages and up to twenty-five years in prison” under the tenants of the Act (Wu 2013). The Act was originally intended to prevent piracy but these no longer make up the majority of the offenses individuals are prosecuted for under its tenants. Its scope is also growing broader: “Dating sitesâ€¦usually mandate that you tell the truth, making lying about your age and weight technically a crime. Or consider employer restrictions on computers that ban personal usage, like checking ESPN or online shopping. The Justice Department’s interpretation makes the American desk-worker a felon” (Wu 2013).
In its original form, during its original era, the law was not nearly as open to abuse: few people used the computer for other than word processing and only serious malicious hackers were likely to break into computers to use data. However, given the ubiquity of computers in our daily lives (and the ubiquity of confusing terms of service agreements users must click), any computer used in commerce could technically fall under the provisions of the CFAA.
The only ‘defense’ of the egregious prosecutions of relatively minor offenses under the Act is that it is relatively rare for such prosecutorial abuses to occur. However, under a government of laws, even if something does not occur frequently, it is still an injustice. Moreover, there is evidence that such prosecutions are mounting, as corporations become increasingly nervous about protecting their interests in the new digital landscape. New Yorker writer and Columbia professor Timothy Wu notes the lack of legal impetus in Congress to change the law and thus states that “the Justice Department should announce a change in its criminal-enforcement policy. It should no longer consider terms-of-service violations to be criminal” (Wu 2013).
However, there is some hope in the sense that there is growing evidence that discontent with the wording of the law has caused many judges to refuse to enforce it under the common law principle of the rule of lenity (Wu 2013). “This states that ambiguous criminal laws should be construed in favor of a defendant” and the less harsh alternative should be selected (Wu 2013). At least thirteen federal judges have already refused to enforce the law, rejecting the Justice Department’s broad use of the Act (Wu 2013). But unless the law is substantially changed (or ideally, struck down and replaced with one which defines the scope of prosecution to a very limited number of intentional criminal hackers), the fate of many people who use computers will rest in the whims of judges, rather than according to the rule of law as should be the case.
Computer Fraud And Abuse Act Reform. (2014). EFF. Retrieved from:
Doyle, C. (2014). Cybercrime: An overview of the Federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Statute and related federal criminal laws. Retrieved from:
Wu, T. (2013). Fixing the worst law in technology. The New Yorker. Retrieved from:
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