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hartford computer crimes lawyerNearly everyone uses computer systems and electronic devices in their everyday lives, and there are many situations where a person could face criminal charges based on issues such as illegally accessing computer systems or using electronic information incorrectly. Cases involving computer crimes can be complex, and there are many different state and federal laws that may apply in these situations. A recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court may play a role in cases involving computer and internet crimes, and it may limit the types of charges that may be pursued by prosecutors.

Limits on the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act

The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) of 1986 prohibits people from accessing a computer and obtaining information they are not authorized to access. While this law was meant to address unauthorized “hacking” of computer systems, courts had interpreted it very broadly, allowing prosecutors to pursue criminal charges in cases where a person had exceeded their authorized access. A person who was authorized to use a computer or network could potentially be prosecuted for using the system outside of what they had specifically been allowed to do. This meant that criminal charges could apply for a number of commonplace activities, such as using a work computer for personal purposes.

These issues were addressed in the case of Van Buren v. United States. This case involved a police officer who accepted money in exchange for performing an unauthorized search of a state license plate database. The officer had been convicted of a felony violation of the CFAA. In reviewing this case, the Supreme Court addressed whether the CFAA can be used to prosecute a person who was authorized to access a computer system but exceeded the scope of what they were allowed to do. The court determined that a broad interpretation of the CFAA would criminalize a number of common activities, such as minor violations of a website’s terms of service. 

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federal, Hartford criminal defense attorneyThe law can be very complicated. For this reason, among others, the American legal system consists of several tiers, each designed to catch mistakes and prevent inconsistencies. Still, there is always the possibility that a court’s decision could have serious unintended consequences, as the scope of a such a decision is not always immediately evident. Such was the scenario with a ruling by a federal appeals court last month—a case in which the dissenting opinion expressed concern that millions of people may have just become “unwitting federal criminals.”

United States v. Nosal

The case in question involved a defendant who was charged with conspiracy, trade secret theft, and computer fraud against his former employer. The man, along with co-conspirators—accessed a database maintained by his former company using the login credentials of another person. As a result, the man was convicted under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA). The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals was presented with the case when the defendant challenged the trial court’s decision.

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