Is Hacking a Federal Crime?

by | Mar 21, 2022

Short Answer:

Yes, hacking, or the unauthorized access of a device or network, is a federal crime under 18 U.S.C. § 1030. It is also a crime at the state level. A misdemeanor conviction is punishable by up to one-year imprisonment and $100,000 in fines, while a felony conviction is punishable by up to ten years imprisonment and $250,000 in fines.

In This Article

A Philadelphia computer crimes defense attorney explains what federal laws apply to hacking crimes, associated penalties, how Pennsylvania treats hacking crimes, and where you can turn for legal help. This post was written for individuals facing hacking-related charges and their loved ones to learn more about the situation they face.

What Federal Laws Apply to Hacking Crimes?

The primary federal law that applies to hacking crimes is the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986 (CFAA). It prohibits hacking-related activities and associated acts of extortion, typically seen in ransom distributed-denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks. The CFAA holds someone civilly and criminally liable if they access a computer without authorization intentionally or exceeds their authorized access.

To get a conviction on the CFAA, the following facts must be proven:

  • Fact 1. You accessed a computer without authorization
  • Fact 2. You lacked or exceeded the authority granted to access it
  • Fact 3. You obtained data from the computer
  • Fact 4. Your actions caused a loss of at least $5,000.00 over one year

The Act’s purpose is to safeguard against anticompetitive behavior, data breaches, hacking, and trade secret theft. As such, many cases usually involve a business, contractor, or employment relationship.

Federal Cyberstalking Laws Could Apply

Cyberstalking generally refers to threatening or harassing another individual through the use of an electronic device. When a computer is used to communicate sexually explicit threats, this is frequently referred to as sextortion and is punishable under federal law as well. Repeated electronic communications with the intent to harass another person may also be considered internet stalking and subject to federal prosecution.


Prosecuting a case of cyberstalking usually involves more than one federal statute. Hackers could face cyberstalking crimes if their activities involved making threats of serious bodily injury to another individual or group of individuals per 18 U.S.C. § 875.

Stalking and Obscene Messages

Federal law defines “stalking” as conduct intended to harm, harass, or intimidate another person under 18 U.S.C. § 2261(A). Certain instances of cyberstalking cases are prosecuted under a federal statute prohibiting harassing or obscene phone calls or computer messages under 47 U.S.C. § 223. This law applies to text messages, chat rooms, and any other interactive software or application that enables people to communicate via the internet.

Federal computer hacking charges are often brought in conjunction with other offenses such as wire fraud and bank fraud. The federal hacking law is considered a gap-filling statute, which means that it does not prohibit all cybercriminal activity.

Below, we’ve outlined these additional related offenses:

  • Bank fraud: 18 U.S.C. § 1344
  • Conspiracy: 18 U.S.C. § 372
  • Counterfeiting: 18 U.S.C. § 472
  • Credit card fraud: 18 U.S.C. § 1029
  • Identity theft: 18 U.S.C. § 1028
  • Mail fraud: 18 U.S.C. § 1341
  • Wire fraud: 18 U.S.C. § 1343

As a result, many individuals charged with hacking may face additional charges for violating other federal laws, such as those mentioned above. It is critical that you speak with a criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible to protect yourself[BVS1] . Otherwise, you could face severe penalties without even putting up a fight.

Related Article: What Is the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act?

Federal Penalties for Hacking Crimes

Federal computer hacking charges may be filed as a misdemeanor or felony. Typically, courts base the decision on the facts of the case, your primary motivation, and the extent of the harm caused.

It’s worth noting that even attempting to gain access to a password-protected computer can result in a misdemeanor charge. If you hack a computer for the purpose of financial gain, committing another crime, or obtaining information worth more than $5,000, you will face felony charges.

If convicted of a felony offense, you face up to ten years in federal prison and a fine of up to $10,000. Certain enhancements will result in increased penalties, such as hacking a computer with the express intent of committing another offense, such as identity theft.

Related Article: Criminal Lawyer Update: Police Need a Warrant to Search a Personal Computer

Is Hacking Illegal in Pennsylvania?

Yes, hacking is illegal in Pennsylvania. State-level computer crime laws prohibit a variety of unauthorized activities involving devices and networks. The Commonwealth addresses these activities under several statutes when charging, convicting, and sentencing an accused person.

Below, we have outlined each hacking-related statute and how the law defines them:

  • 18 Pa.C.S. § 7611. Unlawful use of computer and other computer crimes: You could be charged under this statute if you access, alter, or damage computer devices or networks to disrupt normal functioning or defraud under false pretenses.
  • 18 Pa.C.S. § 7612. Disruption of service: These charges involve acts of intentionally or knowingly engaging in a scheme to deny the access of information or initiation or completion of any sale or transaction by users of a computer, device, or network.
  • 18 Pa.C.S. § 7613. Computer theft: Computer theft is when you unlawfully access data from a device or network with the intent of deprivation.
  • 18 Pa.C.S. § 7614. Unlawful duplication: Unlawful duplication is a crime involving the unlawful duplication of any printed or electronic computer data.
  • 18 Pa.C.S. § 7615. Computer trespass: Computer trespass is essentially when someone disrupts the normal functioning of a computer, system, or program to cause physical harm to someone else’s property.
  • 18 Pa.C.S. § 7616. Distribution of computer virus: Distributing a computer virus is also illegal in Pennsylvania. The prosecutor must prove that you knowingly and intentionally distributed the virus regardless of your intent.

You could also face other criminal charges in Pennsylvania related to hacking, which are similar to federal charges. For example, conspiracy, mail fraud, and wire fraud are all prosecutable in Pennsylvania as other offenses and could add a significant amount of time to your charges if they can get a conviction. It is urgent to seek advice from a trusted legal professional so that you know how to respond to your charges and move forward.

Federal computer hacking charges are no joke. If you or your loved one faces charges, it is critical to have a criminal defense attorney investigating your side of the story. Even if the prosecutor thinks they have all the evidence they need to put you away, that will not matter if they have violated your civil rights, failed to meet their burden of proof, or did not follow proper and constitutional procedure.

Get a Free Case Evaluation in Pennsylvania or South Jersey

Protect yourself when no one else will. The legal team at Shuttleworth Law PC wants to intervene on your behalf while fighting for your freedom. Call us for a Free Case Evaluation at (215) 774-1371 or message Brad V. Shuttleworth, Esq. here.

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