Over the past few decades, computers have become an important and common part of our everyday lives. While computers provide us with many benefits, like increased productivity, computers can also create serious problems.
Computer crimes, for example, are a significant problem in the United States. Computer crimes can generally be divided into two categories: crimes that are specific to the use of computers and crimes that existed long before the advent of the internet and are now facilitated by computers. Additionally, computer crimes can fall under state statutes, federal law, or both.
There are certain crimes that would not be possible without the use of a computer. Or, there are certain uses of the computer that the law has caught up with and said are no longer permissible. Some of these laws attempt to protect computers themselves and computer systems, while others are aimed at protecting people.
The crime of hacking involves unauthorized access or breaking into a computer to which you do not have the authority to access. For instance, the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) prohibits intentionally or knowingly accessing a computer or system. It also prohibits “the transmission of a program, information, code, or command” which “intentionally causes damage without authorization, to a protected computer.”
Similarly, the federal Stored Communications Act (SCA) forbids the unauthorized access of stored electronic communications and data like email, texts, social media messages, and cloud computing and storage. And the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) protects those messages and that data while in transit.
An alleged hacker could attempt to obtain sensitive information or harm the computer. No matter what the hacker’s motivation, however, unauthorized access is a crime. While there are “white hat” hackers, or those employed to find a computer’s or computing system’s vulnerabilities, they generally have valid authorization to access and test security measures and therefore their actions do not fall under anti-hacking laws.
The crime of damaging or threatening to damage a computer deals primarily with computer viruses or worms. It is illegal to attack a computer with a program, code, virus, or worm that will harm the computer, compromise the security of the information on the computer or affect the operations of that computer.
In some cases, the penalties for intentionally damaging a computer are more severe than for unauthorized access.
Bullying, in all its many forms, has been around for ages. But most acts of bullying, especially among school-age children, are not illegal.
Cyberbullying, however, is fairly new and states have responded with statutes prohibiting harassment, intimidation, or causing harm via the internet or on social media. Most states also require schools to have cyberbullying policies in place, some of which cover off-campus behavior.
The penalties associated with violations, however, vary widely. Some states consider bullying through the use of a computer or electronic communication to be a felony crime. Others merely direct schools to administer punishments like suspensions or expulsion.
The computer age has made other crimes easier to commit. For example, some common crimes that are now committed with the use of computers and the internet include child pornography, copyright infringement, identity theft, fraud, and stalking.
With online storage, communication, and duplication, child pornography and the sexual exploitation of minors has exploded. A controversial aspect of the criminal law response has been “sexting” — the transmission of nude images or suggestive material via text messages. While law enforcement officers have used anti-sexting laws to capture child predators, they have also exploited them to file adult criminal charges against teenagers voluntarily trading explicit images.
Additionally, scams have proliferated in the internet age, via email, social media, and online marketplaces. People now need to be careful about the messages they open, the links they click on, the items they buy, and to whom they give their personal data, including banking and credit card information. The CFAA prohibits accessing computers with the intent to defraud, and many state and federal fraud statutes include the use of electronic communications.
Cybercriminals convicted of any of these crimes face the typical sentences associated with each crime and may face additional sentences because of the use of computers or the internet in the commission of the crime. The sentences for these crimes vary depending on the type of crime, the extent of the crime, and the defendant’s criminal history.
Often, a computer crime becomes a federal crime because it involves access or transmissions that cross state lines. Federal computer crimes, like the ones referenced above, may be investigated by the FBI, the U.S. Secret Service, and other appropriate federal agencies. If federal law enforcement arrests a suspect on suspicion of committing a federal crime, then the U.S. Attorney’s Office will normally assign a prosecutor to handle the case.
If, on the other hand, the computer crime happened within the borders of just one state and did not involve the crossing of state lines, a state may investigate, prosecute, and try a suspect pursuant to state computer crime laws.
If you are suspected of committing a computer crime, you will be investigated, and you may be prosecuted. A criminal defense attorney with experience defending people in computer-related crimes can help you protect your rights and mount a legal defense against the charges brought against you.
This article is intended to be helpful and informative. But even common legal matters can become complex and stressful. A qualified computer crime lawyer can address your particular legal needs, explain the law, and represent you in court. Take the first step now and contact a local computer crime attorney to discuss your specific legal situation.