July 28, 2021 22:28

Justices Debate Scope of U.S. Computer Fraud Law

When a Georgia police officer ran a license plate check for an acquaintance who paid him for the favor, he was convicted of a felony, setting the stage for a hotly debated Supreme Court case about the sweep of federal law on computer hacking, the Wall Street Journal reports. The court took up the officer’s appeal on Monday to examine a question about the decades-old Computer Fraud and Abuse Act: Breaking into a computer system is a violation. What if someone has legal access to a computer or database but violates the terms of use? The case has pitted consumer groups, civil libertarians and media organizations against privacy advocates and hedge funds worried about data theft.

Stanford University law Prof. Jeffrey Fisher, representing fired officer Nathan Van Buren, argued that federal prosecutors have embraced a sweeping view of the law that defines unauthorized computer use so broadly as to transform everyday activities into federal crimes. “It is no overstatement to say that this construction would brand most Americans criminals on a daily basis,” he told the justices. Justice Department lawyer Eric Feigin dismissed such claims as “an imaginary avalanche of hypothetical prosecutions” that the government could never bring based on seemingly innocent conduct. Feigin said Van Buren’s case was far different because a law-enforcement official abused his credentials to access a database in exchange for a bribe. Justice Samuel Alito said government employees could do “enormous damage” by misusing computer files. Yet Justice Sonia Sotomayor called the law “dangerously vague” and Justice Neil Gorsuch suggested the case was the latest in a string of prosecutions that sought to expand federal criminal jurisdiction too far.

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