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What Is the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (“CFAA”)?

Even though the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act was signed into law in 1986, it has become increasingly relevant throughout the 21st century. This law was put into place to essentially criminalize any acts of hacking or similar intrusions into a computer. The penalties associated with crimes that fall under the CFAA can be severe, which is why it’s important to understand what the CFAA entails.

What Does the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act Entail?

The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act was designed to criminalize acts that involve intentionally accessing computers without being authorized to do so. When the act was first created in 1986, it was meant to combat numerous types of computer crime. Since computers were still relatively new at that point in time, the act wasn’t as comprehensive as it would become. Since 1986, the act has been amended and expanded numerous times to ensure that it remained on pace with technological advancements.

At the moment, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act directly criminalizes conduct like:

  • Any type of extortion that involves computers
  • Knowingly accessing one or more computers without having authorization to do so
  • Obtaining any amount of protected information by remaining on a computer after authorized access has ended
  • Causing damage to a computer by knowingly transmitting a program, command, information, or code with intent to cause damage
  • Recklessly damaging a computer after gaining unauthorized access
  • Knowingly engaging in defraud trafficking of information or passwords
  • Accessing a computer without authorization and acquiring anything with a value of at least $5,000 in a one-year period

Keep in mind that someone doesn’t need to actually commit these acts in order to be charged with a crime under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. A conspiracy or attempt to commit this type of act is also criminalized through the CFAA. Violating this law can come with jail time of as much as 10 years for the first offense and 20 years for the second offense. The exact types of penalties that could be attributed to a CFAA case depend on the type of offense that was committed.

Possible CFAA Offenses

There are around 10 distinct CFAA offenses that someone could be charged with. These offenses and the penalties associated with them include:

  • Trafficking in passwords – One year
  • Trespassing on a government computer – One year
  • Obtaining any amount of national security information – 10 years
  • Accessing any computer and acquiring information – One or five years
  • Recklessly damaging after gaining intentional access – One or five years
  • Accessing any computer to knowingly defraud and obtain value – Five years
  • Obtaining intentional access before negligently damaging the computer – One year
  • Extortion via a computer – Five years
  • Causing intentional damage by knowingly transmitting data or code – 1-10 years
  • Conspiracy or attempt to commit one of these acts – 10 years

Keep in mind that second offenses for any of these acts can carry prison terms that range from 10-20 years.

How a Civil Cause of Action Could Apply

In most situations, a violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act will be a criminal case. However, plaintiffs could pursue a civil cause of action, which might eventually turn into a lawsuit. In order to pursue this type of action, the plaintiff will need to demonstrate that:

  • The total loss during a one-year period exceeded $5,000
  • Physical injury to a person
  • Damage affecting a U.S. Government computer
  • Damage affecting at least 10 protected computers throughout a one-year period
  • A threat to the public’s health and safety

Civil actions pertaining to the CFAA have been increasing in recent years and will likely continue to rise in the next decade.

If you have been charged with any of the aforementioned crimes that fall under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, contact our criminal offense attorneys today to inquire about our services or to schedule an initial consultation.

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