What Is the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act?

by | Mar 8, 2022


The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986 (CFAA) is a federal anti-hacking law that makes it unlawful to access a computer intentionally without permission under 18 U.S. Code § 1030. It addresses numerous acts but generally penalizes individuals convicted of using computers illegally. Examples of CFAA violations include selling passwords, sharing national security information, or damaging a network.

This law was enacted as an amendment to the Counterfeit Access Device and Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1984. United States lawmakers have amended the Act numerous times throughout the years to address ongoing technological advancements and developments.

In This Article

A Philadelphia computer crimes defense lawyer addresses what the CFAA penalizes, the associated penalties, how to defend against charges, and where you can turn to for legal advice if you or a family member get arrested under the Act.

What Does the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act Make Criminal?

The majority of federal computer hacking offenses criminalize a broad range of illegal computer activities. It is a federal crime to gain unauthorized access to a protected computer while intending to cause harm or commit a fraud crime. Federal computer hacking cases typically involve an individual being accused of hacking a government computer, stealing something of value, committing identity theft, obtaining financial information, causing damage, or destroying files.

Offenses under the CFAA may include:

  • Accessing a Computer and Obtaining Information
  • Accessing a Computer to Defraud and Obtain Value
  • Extortion Involving Computers
  • Intentionally Damaging by Knowing Transmission
  • Negligently Causing Damage and Loss by Intentional Access
  • Obtaining National Security Information
  • Recklessly Damaging by Intentional Access
  • Trafficking in Passwords
  • Trespassing in a Government Computer
  • Attempt and Conspiracy to Commit such an Offense

Important: Computer fraud and abuse cases are typically prosecuted aggressively, and a conviction can have far-reaching consequences. It is critical to note that if you are being investigated or arrested for federal computer hacking, you should contact an experienced federal criminal attorney immediately to learn more about your legal options and rights.

What Constitutes “Damage” Under the CFAA?

Damage is any impairment of a program, system, or data’s availability or integrity. It can result in losses such as costs incurred by the victim as well as lost revenue incurred by service disruption. To satisfy the statutory threshold, damages and losses must total at least $5,000 in any one-year period. Physical injury is not required to make a claim for losses or damages under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

Related Article: Could I Get Charged With Federal Wire Fraud?

What Are the Penalties Under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act?

Penalties for violating the CFAA can include significant terms of imprisonment in federal prison, forfeiture, restitution, and potential civil liability, depending on the nature of the crime and alleged damages or losses. The CFAA can impose both criminal penalties and civil liabilities for violations.

Here is a closer look at some of the potential penalties on the line:

Criminal Penalties

If you are convicted of violating the CFAA, you may be subject to severe criminal penalties. Even first-time offenses involving unauthorized access to a protected computer are punishable by up to five years in federal prison.

Each additional access is punishable by an additional sentence, and subsequent offenses may result in longer sentences of up to ten years each, as well as fines. Other sections of the CFAA carry even harsher penalties, including up to 20 years or even life in prison.

Civil Liabilities

If CFAA violations result in damages or losses, businesses and individuals may sue for compensatory damages. Compensatory damages are the financial amounts claimed by a plaintiff in a civil lawsuit that compensates them for the damage they allege that you caused.

Losses are also defined in the CFAA as:

“Any reasonable cost incurred by a victim, including the cost of responding to an offense, conducting a damage assessment, and restoring the data, program, system, or information to its pre-offense state, as well as any revenue lost, cost incurred, or other consequential damages incurred as a result of service interruption.”

18 U.S. Code § 1030

The law only applies to quantifiable damages, not to potential lost earnings as a result of unfair competition or lost business opportunities. As such, there are some limitations to the recoverable damages. However, a favorable plaintiff verdict could end up costing you tens of thousands to millions of dollars.

Related Article: Is Hacking a Federal Crime?

How to Defend Against Federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Charges

The burden of proof is on the federal prosecutor to obtain a conviction. This means that they will have to establish all of the crime’s elements beyond a reasonable doubt before a judge and jury. The primary factor in a computer fraud and abuse case is that you accessed a computer knowingly and intentionally.

There are several ways in which you can defend against a federal CFAA case. A Philadelphia computer crimes defense attorney could argue that you accessed a computer with consent or that the access did not rise to the level of fraud or abuse, depending upon the facts and circumstances of your case.

Additionally, you could also argue that you did not gain unauthorized access to the computer or that you had a reasonable belief you had authorization. Regardless of the defenses that apply to your case, it is vital to enlist the help of an attorney with technical resources and a strong business acumen. They can help you view your case from a different lens to uncover where things really stand.

Related Article: Why Hire a Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer?

If you or a loved one faces charges under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, the time to defend your case should start NOW. The federal government is experienced in prosecuting these cases, and the outcome could up-end your life. However, an experienced and technical Philadelphia computer crimes defense lawyer at Shuttleworth Law PC has the resources and knowledge that your case deserves when you need to put up the fight of your life.

You Should Call Us If You Want More Information at No Cost

You can put a stop to the feeling that you have no control over the situation today. Call Shuttleworth Law PC for a Free Case Evaluation at (215) 774-1371, or send us a message here. We can meet on your terms—by phone, in person, video chat, or at our offices—if you prefer.

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