What Is Computer Hacking?
“Hacking” is a broad term that encompasses a wide range of activities. At a fundamental level, hacking involves subverting or circumventing the features and limitations of a computer beyond what they were authorized to do. For example, hacking can involve acquiring someone’s login credentials using sophisticated programming.
In the early days of the computer age, software engineers and programmers would cause relatively benign mischief among themselves by creating programs that disrupted the intended abilities of a computer. With the advent of the internet, the potential harm of hacking escalated alongside society’s dependence on computer technology.
Today, computer hacking can be divided into the following categories:
- Hacking for wrongful personal gain
- Hacking to help a business gain a competitive advantage in the market
- Hacking to commit state espionage
- Hacking to further a political or social cause
- Hacking to buildup one’s reputation among the hacking community
The Computer Fraud & Abuse Act
The wrongs associated with hacking are conceptually similar to crimes against someone’s property. For example, using, accessing, or destroying another person’s property without their consent is considered to be tort or even a crime in many states.
However, the established laws regarding property could not be applied to hacking because of the blurred lines between the abstract world of software and the real harms that hacking can cause.
In the 1980s, the U.S. Congress enacted the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) to combat hacking. Although the use of computers was not as ubiquitous as it is today, the U.S. Congress had the prescience to develop legal measures to prevent and punish the use of computers to perpetrate fraud and other wrongful or criminal acts.
The CFAA made the following acts a federal crime punishable by up to ten years in prison as well as thousands of dollars in fines:
- Knowingly accessing a computer without authorization to disclose government secrets
- Intentionally accessing a computer without authorization to obtain financial records
- Intentionally accessing a computer without authorization to obtain information from a federal department or agency
- Intentionally accessing a computer without authorization to obtain information from a “protected computer”
- Knowingly accessing a computer in furtherance of committing a fraud
- Knowingly transmitting software or code to intentionally damage a protected computer
- Knowingly traffics password information with the intent to defraud
- Extorting someone by threatening to damage or hack a protected computer
The CFAA defines “protected computer” to mean a computer that affects interstate commerce or used by a financial institution or the federal government. Furthermore, “exceeds authorized access” means “to access a computer with authorization and to use such access to obtain or alter information in the computer that the accesser is not entitled so to obtain or alter…”
Controversial Expansions of CFAA
Since CFAA was introduced into the federal penal code, it has been subject to several amendments. Since then, federal prosecutors have been able to take advantage of the ambiguities in CFAA’s language to expand the scope of the government’s power to oppress criminals and activists alike.
In 2013, CFAA was used to bring federal criminal charges against cyberbullies when existing legislation did not recognize or define cyberbullying as a crime. The prosecutor, in that case, argued that the defendant’s use of a social media profile page to harass someone qualified as “unauthorized access” because they violated the terms and conditions of the social media provider.
Although a jury convicted the defendant of violating the CFAA, the judge overturned the verdict for constitutional vagueness based on the government’s interpretation of CFAA, which would have turned civil breach of contract cases (violating a website’s terms and conditions) into criminal offenses.
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