The Supreme Court limited the scope of the federal law against computer hacking on Thursday, ruling it covers those who break into confidential files, but not people who misuse the information they were authorized to see.
In a 6-3 opinion written by Justice Amy Coney Barrett, the court said it would not turn “millions of otherwise law-abiding citizens” into criminals if they sit at their work computer and send personal notes to friends or plan a vacation.
At issue, she said, were so-called inside hackers who have legal access to a computer, but then exceed their authorized use by using the information for other purposes. She said the court would not interpret the phrase “exceeds authorized access” to criminalize every violation of a computer-use policy.
The decision overturns the computer fraud conviction of a Georgia police sergeant who was authorized to check the state’s database on license plates, but took a $5,000 secret payment from a local man who said he wanted to learn about a stripper he had just met. It was actually an FBI sting, and Nathan Van Buren, the sergeant, was charged and convicted of a computer fraud for exceeding his “authorized access.”
He appealed, arguing that he was authorized to check the state license plate files. The court’s majority agreed that the law in question did not apply to his circumstances.
“An individual ‘exceeds authorized access’ when he accesses a computer with authorization, but then obtains information located in particular areas of the computer — such as files, folders, or databases — that are off limits to him,” Barrett wrote.
Van Buren accessed the law enforcement database system with authorization, “even though he obtained information from the database for an improper purpose.”
Joining Barrett’s opinion in Van Buren vs. United States were Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Neil M. Gorsuch and Brett M. Kavanaugh.
In dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas said the laws “have long punished those who exceed the scope of consent when using property that belongs to others. A valet, for example, may take possession of a person’s car to park it, but he cannot take it for a joyride.” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. agreed.
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