In the wake of the Russian computer hacking scandal, there is a renewed concern amongst the American people and the federal government over the issue of unauthorized invasions into exclusive computer servers. Both the CIA and the FBI have confirmed that intelligence agencies of the Russian government illegally intruded into the digital networks of the Democratic National Committee with the aim of improperly influencing the 2016 presidential election in favor of their preferred candidate, Donald Trump. Computer crimes are becoming increasingly common in America as the vast majority of commerce is transacted at some stage through the use of a computer. Large amounts of valuable personal and financial data, both public and private, are stored digitally as well. Moreover, the ability to conduct illegal activities through the use of digital means is now frighteningly easy as even very young or otherwise unskilled persons can simply download and effortlessly navigate basic hacking applications online.
The federal criminal statute pertaining to hacking is the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) which was enacted by congress in 1984. The statute, 18 U.S.C. § 1030, has since been amended numerous times over the last three decades including a significant expansion under the Patriot Act in 2001. The CFAA criminalizes several types of digital behaviors. For example, under the CFAA, it is a crime for an individual to knowingly: 1) accesses a computer without authorization; 2) to obtain information that has been determined by law to require protection against disclosure for national defense or foreign relations; and 3) to willfully transmit this information to a person who is not unauthorized to receive it; or (4) to fail to deliver it to the intended officer or employee.
Other examples of criminalized behavior include: accessing confidential financial records such as bank statements or credit reports with a computer, interfering with the Government’s ability to use their various computer networks, and re-configuring or re-programming of a system to function in ways not facilitated by the owner, administrator, or designer. The CFAA also criminalizes accessing the private computer networks of individuals, companies, or other organizations, and then extorting these individuals/companies for money by threatening to disable the network or destroy the data contained within. All of the above examples are generally prosecuted as federal felonies.
The penalties for engaging in the computer hacking activities described above can be very severe. Most of the hacking crimes carry a federal prison sentence of one, five, ten, or even twenty years depending upon the severity of the individual facts. Large fines and orders for restitution are also imposed on computers hackers convicted in federal criminal court. Obviously anyone accused of committing a computer hacking related offenses should employ the services of a qualified defense attorney immediately.
Although in the past, federal authorities have only prosecuted hackers when their activities substantially impact foreign affairs, interstate commerce, or federal government computer systems, under the new administration it is unclear how these crimes will be prosecuted
State authorities have also enacted anti-hacking legislation. For example, California has enacted the California Comprehensive Computer Data Access and Fraud Act. Under California Penal Code § 502, a person can be prosecuted for “hacking” or any type of unauthorized computer access and fraud and face up to three years in state prison. Further, if a computer network is hacked in California, not only can the attackers be criminally prosecuted by the state, but the alleged victim can sue the alleged perpetrators for a monetary judgment.
As more and more of our political, financial, and social lives are conducted on computers the danger for unauthorized invasion into these realms by hackers has increased proportionally and also the danger of false accusations pertaining to digital behaviors. While, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act combined with state and local laws against hacking provide a substantial deterrent to potential cyber criminals, there are still a myriad of easily downloadable hacking tools that can be found and used by anyone with an internet connection. Moreover, if you are being investigated or accused of accessing data in violation of state or federal law, you should speak with a qualified attorney as soon as possible to best protect your rights against any type of alleged cyber crime.
By: Law Offices of Karen L. Goldstein, (888) 445-6313.