Computer Fraud and Abuse Act

The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) is a United States cybersecurity bill that was enacted in 1986 as an amendment to existing computer fraud law (18 U.S.C. § 1030), which had been included in the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984. The law prohibits accessing a computer without authorization, or in excess of authorization.[1] Prior to computer-specific criminal laws, computer crimes were prosecuted as mail and wire fraud, but the applying law was often insufficient.

The original 1984 bill was enacted in response to concern that computer-related crimes might go unpunished.[2] The House Committee Report to the original computer crime bill characterized the 1983 techno-thriller film WarGames—in which a young teenager (played by Matthew Broderick) from Seattle breaks into a U.S. military supercomputer programmed to predict possible outcomes of nuclear war and unwittingly almost starts World War III—as "a realistic representation of the automatic dialing and access capabilities of the personal computer."[3]

The CFAA was written to extend existing tort law to intangible property, while, in theory, limiting federal jurisdiction to cases "with a compelling federal interest-i.e., where computers of the federal government or certain financial institutions are involved or where the crime itself is interstate in nature.", but its broad definitions have spilled over into contract law. (see "Protected Computer", below). In addition to amending a number of the provisions in the original section 1030, the CFAA also criminalized additional computer-related acts. Provisions addressed the distribution of malicious code and denial of service attacks. Congress also included in the CFAA a provision criminalizing trafficking in passwords and similar items.[1]

Since then, the Act has been amended a number of times—in 1989, 1994, 1996, in 2001 by the USA PATRIOT Act, 2002, and in 2008 by the Identity Theft Enforcement and Restitution Act. With each amendment of the law, the types of conduct that fell within its reach were extended.

In January 2015 Barack Obama proposed expanding the CFAA and the RICO Act in his Modernizing Law Enforcement Authorities to Combat Cyber Crime proposal.[4] DEF CON organizer and Cloudflare researcher Marc Rogers, Senator Ron Wyden, and Representative Zoe Lofgren have stated opposition to this on the grounds it will make many regular Internet activities illegal, and moves further away from what they were trying to accomplish with Aaron's Law.[5][6]

Protected computers

The only computers, in theory, covered by the CFAA are defined as "protected computers". They are defined under section 18 U.S.C. § 1030(e)(2) to mean a computer:

  • exclusively for the use of a financial institution or the United States Government, or any computer, when the conduct constituting the offense affects the computer's use by or for the financial institution or the government; or
  • which is used in or affecting interstate or foreign commerce or communication, including a computer located outside the United States that is used in a manner that affects interstate or foreign commerce or communication of the United States ...

In practice, any ordinary computer has come under the jurisdiction of the law, including cellphones, due to the interstate nature of most Internet communication.[7]

Criminal offenses under the Act

(a) Whoever—

(1) having knowingly accessed a computer without authorization or exceeding authorized access, and by means of such conduct having obtained information that has been determined by the United States Government pursuant to an Executive order or statute to require protection against unauthorized disclosure for reasons of national defense or foreign relations, or any restricted data, as defined in paragraph y. of section 11 of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, with reason to believe that such information so obtained could be used to the injury of the United States, or to the advantage of any foreign nation willfully communicates, delivers, transmits, or causes to be communicated, delivered, or transmitted, or attempts to communicate, deliver, transmit or cause to be communicated, delivered, or transmitted the same to any person not entitled to receive it, or willfully retains the same and fails to deliver it to the officer or employee of the United States entitled to receive it;
(2) intentionally accesses a computer without authorization or exceeds authorized access, and thereby obtains—
(A) information contained in a financial record of a financial institution, or of a card issuer as defined in section 1602 (n) [1] of title 15, or contained in a file of a consumer reporting agency on a consumer, as such terms are defined in the Fair Credit Reporting Act (15 U.S.C. 1681 et seq.);
(B) information from any department or agency of the United States; or
(C) information from any protected computer;
(3) intentionally, without authorization to access any nonpublic computer of a department or agency of the United States, accesses such a computer of that department or agency that is exclusively for the use of the Government of the United States or, in the case of a computer not exclusively for such use, is used by or for the Government of the United States and such conduct affects that use by or for the Government of the United States;
(4) knowingly and with intent to defraud, accesses a protected computer without authorization, or exceeds authorized access, and by means of such conduct furthers the intended fraud and obtains anything of value, unless the object of the fraud and the thing obtained consists only of the use of the computer and the value of such use is not more than $5,000 in any 1-year period;
(A) knowingly causes the transmission of a program, information, code, or command, and as a result of such conduct, intentionally causes damage without authorization, to a protected computer;
(B) intentionally accesses a protected computer without authorization, and as a result of such conduct, recklessly causes damage; or
(C) intentionally accesses a protected computer without authorization, and as a result of such conduct, causes damage and loss.
(6) knowingly and with intent to defraud traffics (as defined in section 1029) in any password or similar information through which a computer may be accessed without authorization, if—
(A) such trafficking affects interstate or foreign commerce; or
(B) such computer is used by or for the Government of the United States;
(7) with intent to extort from any person any money or other thing of value, transmits in interstate or foreign commerce any communication containing any—
(A) threat to cause damage to a protected computer;
(B) threat to obtain information from a protected computer without authorization or in excess of authorization or to impair the confidentiality of information obtained from a protected computer without authorization or by exceeding authorized access; or
(C) demand or request for money or other thing of value in relation to damage to a protected computer, where such damage was caused to facilitate the extortion[8]

Specific sections

Notable cases and decisions referring to the Act

The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act is both a criminal law and a statute that creates a private right of action, allowing compensation and injunctive or other equitable relief to anyone harmed by a violation of this law. These provisions have allowed private companies to sue disloyal employees for damages for the misappropriation of confidential information (trade secrets).

Criminal cases

  • United States v. Morris (1991), 928 F.2d 504, decided March 7, 1991. After the release of the Morris worm, an early computer worm, its creator was convicted under the Act for causing damage and gaining unauthorized access to "federal interest" computers. The Act was amended in 1996, in part, to clarify language whose meaning was disputed in the case.[9]
  • United States v. Lori Drew, 2008. The cyberbullying case involving the suicide of a girl harassed on myspace. Charges were under 18 USC 1030(a)(2)(c) and (b)(2)(c). Judge Wu decided that using 18 U.S.C. § 1030(a)(2)(C) against someone violating a terms of service agreement would make the law overly broad. 259 F.R.D. 449 [10][11]
  • United States v. Collins et al, 2011. A group of men and women connected to the collective Anonymous signed a plea deal to charges of conspiring to disrupt access to the payment website PayPal in response to the payment shutdown to WikiLeaks over the Wau Holland Foundation which was part of a wider Anonymous campaign, Operation Payback.[12][13] They later became known under the name PayPal 14.
  • United States v. Aaron Swartz, 2011. Aaron Swartz allegedly entered an MIT wiring closet and set up a laptop to mass-download articles from JSTOR. He allegedly avoided various attempts by JSTOR and MIT to stop this, such as MAC address spoofing. He was indicted for violating CFAA provisions (a)(2), (a)(4), (c)(2)(B)(iii), (a)(5)(B), and (c)(4)(A)(i)(I),(VI).[14] The case was dismissed after Swartz committed suicide in January 2013.[15]
  • United States v. Nosal, 2011. Nosal and others allegedly accessed a protected computer to take a database of contacts from his previous employer for use in his own business, violating 1030(a)(4)[16][17] This is a complex case with two trips to the Ninth Circuit, and another seen as likely after the latest conviction in 2013.[18]
  • United States v. Peter Alfred-Adekeye 2011. Adekeye allegedly violated (a)(2), when he allegedly downloaded CISCO IOS, allegedly something that the CISCO employee who gave him an access password did not permit. Adekeye was CEO of Multiven and had accused CISCO of anti-competitive practices.[19]
  • United States v Sergey Aleynikov, 2011. Aleynikov was a programmer at Goldman Sachs accused of copying code, like high-frequency trading code, allegedly in violation of 1030(a)(2)(c) and 1030(c)(2)(B)i-iii and 2. This charge was later dropped, and he was instead charged with theft of trade secrets and transporting stolen property.[20][21]
  • United States v Nada Nadim Prouty, circa 2010.[22] Prouty was an FBI and CIA agent who was prosecuted for having a fraudulent marriage to get US residency. She claims she was persecuted by a U.S. attorney who was trying to gain media coverage by calling her a terrorist agent and get himself promoted to a federal judgeship.[23]
  • United States v. Neil Scott Kramer, 2011. Kramer was a court case where a cellphone was used to coerce a minor into engaging sex with an adult. Central to the case was whether a cellphone constituted a computer device. Ultimately, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit found that a cell phone can be considered a computer if "the phone perform[s] arithmetic, logical, and storage functions", paving the way for harsher consequences for criminals engaging with minors over cellphones.[24]
  • United States v. Kane, 2011. Exploiting a software bug in a poker machine does not constitute hacking [25] because the poker machine in question failed to constitute a "protected computer" under the statute (as the poker machine in question did not demonstrate a tangential relationship to interstate commerce) and because the sequence of button presses that triggered the bug were considered held to have "not exceed[ed] their authorized access." As of November 2013 the defendant still faces a regular wire fraud charge.[26]

Civil cases


There have been criminal convictions for CFAA violations in the context of civil law, for breach of contract or terms of service violations. Many common and insignificant online acts, such as password-sharing and copyright infringement, can transform a CFAA misdemeanor into a felony. The punishments are severe, similar to sentences for selling or importing drugs, and may be disproportionate. Prosecutors have used the CFAA to protect private business interests and to intimidate free-culture activists, deterring undesirable, yet legal, conduct.[37]

Tim Wu called the CFAA "the worst law in technology".[38]

Aaron Swartz

The government was able to bring such disproportionate charges against Aaron because of the broad scope of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) and the wire fraud statute. It looks like the government used the vague wording of those laws to claim that violating an online service's user agreement or terms of service is a violation of the CFAA and the wire fraud statute.

Using the law in this way could criminalize many everyday activities and allow for outlandishly severe penalties.

When our laws need to be modified, Congress has a responsibility to act. A simple way to correct this dangerous legal interpretation is to change the CFAA and the wire fraud statutes to exclude terms of service violations. I will introduce a bill that does exactly that.

—Rep. Zoe Lofgren, Jan 15, 2013 [39]

In the wake of the prosecution and subsequent suicide of Aaron Swartz (who used a script to download scholarly research articles in excess of what JSTOR terms of service allowed), lawmakers proposed amending the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Representative Zoe Lofgren drafted a bill that would help "prevent what happened to Aaron from happening to other Internet users".[39] Aaron's Law (H.R. 2454, S. 1196[40]) would exclude terms of service violations from the 1984 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and from the wire fraud statute, despite the fact that Swartz was not prosecuted based on terms of service violations.[41]

In addition to Lofgren's efforts, Representatives Darrell Issa and Jared Polis (also on the House Judiciary Committee) raised questions about the government's handling of the case. Polis called the charges "ridiculous and trumped up," referring to Swartz as a "martyr."[42] Issa, chair of the House Oversight Committee, announced an investigation of the Justice Department's prosecution.[42][43]

By May 2014, Aaron's Law had stalled in committee. Filmmaker Brian Knappenberger alleges this was due to Oracle Corporation's financial interest in maintaining the status quo.[44]

Aaron's Law was reintroduced in May 2015 (H.R. 2454, S. 1030[45]) and again stalled.

Amendments history


  • Eliminated the requirement that information must have been stolen through an interstate or foreign communication, thereby expanding jurisdiction for cases involving theft of information from computers;
  • Eliminated the requirement that the defendant's action must result in a loss exceeding $5,000 and created a felony offense where the damage affects ten or more computers, closing a gap in the law;
  • Expanded 18 U.S.C. § 1030(a)(7) to criminalize not only explicit threats to cause damage to a computer, but also threats to (1) steal data on a victim's computer, (2) publicly disclose stolen data, or (3) not repair damage the offender already caused to the computer;
  • Created a criminal offense for conspiring to commit a computer hacking offense under section 1030;
  • Broadened the definition of "protected computer" in 18 U.S.C. § 1030(e)(2) to the full extent of Congress's commerce power by including those computers used in or affecting interstate or foreign commerce or communication; and
  • Provided a mechanism for civil and criminal forfeiture of property used in or derived from section 1030 violations.

See also


  1. Jarrett, H. Marshall; Bailie, Michael W. (2010). "Prosecution of Computer" (PDF). Office of Legal Education Executive Office for United States Attorneys. Retrieved June 3, 2013.
  2. Schulte, Stephanie (November 2008). "The WarGames Scenario". Television and New Media. 9 (6): 487–513. doi:10.1177/1527476408323345.
  3. H.R. Rep. 98-894, 1984 U.S.C.C.A.N. 3689, 3696 (1984).
  4. "SECURING CYBERSPACE - President Obama Announces New Cybersecurity Legislative Proposal and Other Cybersecurity Efforts". January 13, 2015. Retrieved January 30, 2015.
  5. "Democrats, Tech Experts Slam Obama's Anti-Hacking Proposal". Huffington Post. January 20, 2015. Retrieved January 30, 2015.
  6. "Obama, Goodlatte Seek Balance on CFAA Cybersecurity". U.S. News & World Report. January 27, 2015. Retrieved January 30, 2015.
  7. Varma, Corey (2015-01-03). "What is the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act". Retrieved 10 June 2015.
  8. Legal Information Institute, Cornell University Law School. "18 USC 1030".
  9. United States v. Morris (1991), 928 F.2d 504, 505 (2d Cir. 1991).
  10. U.S. v. Lori Drew, scribd
  11. US v Lori Drew, KYLE JOSEPH SASSMAN,
  12. David Gilbert (December 6, 2013). "PayPal 14 'Freedom Fighters' Plead Guilty to Cyber-Attack". International Business Times.
  13. Alexa O'Brien (December 5, 2013). "Inside the 'PayPal 14' Trial". The Daily Beast.
  14. See Internet Activist Charged in M.I.T. Data Theft, By NICK BILTON New York Times, July 19, 2011, 12:54 PM, as well as the Indictment
  15. Dave Smith, Aaron Swartz Case: U.S. DOJ Drops All Pending Charges Against The JSTOR Liberator, Days After His Suicide, International Business Times, January 15, 2013.
  16. U.S. v. Nosal,, 2011
  17. Appeals Court: No Hacking Required to Be Prosecuted as a Hacker, By David Kravets, Wired, April 29, 2011
  18. Kravets, David (April 24, 2013). "Man Convicted of Hacking Despite Not Hacking". Wired.
  19. US v Adekeye Indictment. see also Federal Grand Jury indicts former Cisco Engineer By Howard Mintz, 08/05/2011, Mercury News
  20. US v Sergey Aleynikov, Case 1:10-cr-00096-DLC Document 69 Filed 10/25/10
  21. Ex-Goldman Programmer Described Code Downloads to FBI (Update1), David Glovin and David Scheer - July 10, 2009, Bloomberg
  22. Plea Agreement, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Michigan, Southern Division. via
  23. Sibel Edmond's Boiling Frogs podcast 61 Thursday, 13. October 2011. Interview with Prouty by Peter B. Collins and Sibel Edmonds
  24. "United States of America v. Neil Scott Kramer" (PDF).
  25. Poulsen, Kevin (May 7, 2013). "Feds Drop Hacking Charges in Video-Poker Glitching Case". Wired.
  26. No Expansion of CFAA Liability for Monetary Exploit of Software Bug | New Media and Technology Law Blog
  27. "Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals: Stored Communications Act and Computer Fraud and Abuse Act Provide Cause of Action for Plaintiff | Stanford Center for Internet and Society". Retrieved September 10, 2010.
  28. US v Jacob Citrin,
  29. U.S. v Brekka 2009
  30. Kravets, David, Court: Disloyal Computing Is Not Illegal, Wired, September 18, 2009.
  31. Kravets, David (August 20, 2013). "IP Cloaking Violates Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, Judge Rules". Wired.
  32. Craigslist v. 3taps |Digital Media Law Project
  33. 3Taps Can't Shake Unauthorized Craigslist Access Claims - Law360
  34. See the links to the original lawsuit documents which are indexed here
  35. 2011 8 9, Mike Masnick, "Sending Too Many Emails to Someone Is Computer Hacking"
  36. Hall, Brian, Sixth Circuit Decision in Pulte Homes Leaves Employers With Few Options In Response To Union High Tech Tactics, Employer Law Report, 3 August 2011. Retrieved 27 January 2013.
  37. Curtiss, Tiffany (2016), "Computer Fraud and Abuse Act Enforcement: Cruel, Unusual, and Due for Reform", Washington Law Review, 91 (4)
  38. Christian Sandvig; Karrie Karahalios (2006-07-01). "Most of what you do online is illegal. Let's end the absurdity". The Guardian.
  39. Reilly, Ryan J. (January 15, 2013). "Congresswoman Introduces 'Aaron's Law' Honoring Swartz". Huffington Post.
  40. H.R. 2454 at; H.R. 2454 at GovTrack; H.R. 2454 Archived November 12, 2013, at the Wayback Machine at OpenCongress. S. 1196 at; S. 1196 at GovTrack; S. 1196 Archived November 12, 2013, at the Wayback Machine at OpenCongress.
  42. Sasso, Brendan (2013-01-16). "Lawmakers slam DOJ prosecution of Swartz as 'ridiculous, absurd'". The Hill. Retrieved 2013-01-16.
  43. Reilly, Ryan J. (January 15, 2013). "Darrell Issa Probing Prosecution Of Aaron Swartz, Internet Pioneer Who Killed Himself". Retrieved 2013-01-16.
  44. Dekel, Jonathan (May 1, 2014). "Swartz doc director: Oracle and Larry Ellison killed Aaron's Law". Postmedia.
  45. H.R. 1918 at Congress.govS. 1030 at
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