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Application of Computer Fraud and Abuse Act – Criminalizing Everyday Computer Activity – Nosal: 9th Circuit says No!

James D. Crosby, Attorney at Law - Complex and General Business Litigation and Trial Representation - San Diego, California

Real interesting new 9th Cir. opinion. U.S. v. Nosal. Does an employee who violates an employer policy prohibiting the use of work computers for non-business purposes commit a federal crime under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act? 9th says No. Nosal – http://1.usa.gov/Hq5Ks9

Real interesting opinion. Turns on statutory construction but makes broader point on criminalizing what might otherwise been considered day-to-day activities by millions of people. Look at this passage:

Minds have wandered since the beginning of time and the computer gives employees new ways to procrastinate, by gchatting with friends, playing games, shopping or watching sports highlights. Such activities are routinely prohibited by many computer-use policies, although employees are seldom disciplined for occasional use of work computers for personal purposes. Nevertheless, under the broad interpretation of the CFAA, such minor dalliances would become federal crimes. While it’s unlikely that you’ll be prosecuted for watching Reason.TV on your work computer, you could be. Employers wanting to rid themselves of troublesome employees without following proper procedures could threaten to report them to the FBI unless they quit. Ubiquitous, seldom-prosecuted crimes invite arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement.

Employer-employee and company-consumer relationships are traditionally governed by tort and contract law; the government’s proposed interpretation of the CFAA allows private parties to manipulate their computer-use and personnel policies so as to turn these relationships into ones policed by the criminal law. Significant notice problems arise if we allow criminal liability to turn on the vagaries of private polices that are lengthy, opaque, subject to change and seldom read. Consider the typical corporate policy that computers can be used only for business purposes. What exactly is a “nonbusiness purpose”? If you use the computer to check the weather report for a business trip? For the company softball game? For your vacation to Hawaii? And if minor personal uses are tolerated, how can an employee be on notice of what constitutes a violation sufficient to trigger criminal liability?

Basing criminal liability on violations of private computer use polices can transform whole categories of otherwise innocuous behavior into federal crimes simply because a computer is involved. Employees who call family members from their work phones will become criminals if they send an email instead. Employees can sneak in the sports section of the New York Times to read at work, but they’d better not visit ESPN.com. And sudoku enthusiasts should stick to the printed puzzles, because visiting http://www.dailysudoku.com from their work computers might give them more than enough time to hone their sudoku skills behind bars.

The effect this broad construction of the CFAA has on workplace conduct pales by comparison with its effect on everyone else who uses a computer, smart-phone, iPad, Kindle, Nook, X-box, Blu-Ray player or any other Internet-enabled device. The Internet is a means for communicating via computers: Whenever we access a web page, commence a download, post a message on somebody’s Facebook wall, shop on Amazon, bid on eBay, publish a blog, rate a movie on IMDb, read http://www.NYT.com, watch YouTube and do the thousands of other things we routinely do online, we are using one computer to send commands to other computers at remote locations. Our access to those remote computers is governed by a series of private agreements and policies that most people are only dimly aware of and virtually no one reads or understands.

Take a look, interesting stuff – also an issue that will be before Supreme Court. Other circuits have come down differently on application of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

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