Samiksha Jaiswal (Editor)

Computer Fraud and Abuse Act

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The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) was enacted by Congress 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. It was written to clarify and increase the scope of the previous version of 18 U.S.C. § 1030 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." (see "Protected Computer", below). In addition to clarifying 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.


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.

In January 2015 Barack Obama proposed expanding the CFAA and the RICO Act in his Modernizing Law Enforcement Authorities to Combat Cyber Crime proposal. 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.

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 inter-state nature of most internet communication.

    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— (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; (5) (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— (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—

    Specific sections

  • 18 U.S.C. § 1030(a)(1): Computer Espionage. This section takes much of its language from the Espionage Act of 1917, with the notable addition being that it also covers information related to "Foreign Relations", not simply "National Defense" like the Espionage Act.
  • 18 U.S.C. § 1030(a)(2): Computer trespassing, and taking government, financial, or commerce info
  • 18 U.S.C. § 1030(a)(3): Computer trespassing in a government computer
  • 18 U.S.C. § 1030(a)(4): Committing fraud with computer
  • 18 U.S.C. § 1030(a)(5): Damaging a protected computer (including viruses, worms)
  • 18 U.S.C. § 1030(a)(6): Trafficking in passwords of a government or commerce computer
  • 18 U.S.C. § 1030(a)(7): Threatening to damage a protected computer
  • 18 U.S.C. § 1030(b): Conspiracy to violate (a)
  • 18 U.S.C. § 1030(c): Penalties
  • 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 private individuals and companies to sue to recover damages caused by violations of this law. There have been a number of notable court cases interpreting the CFAA in both criminal and civil cases.

    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.
  • 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
  • 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. 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). The case was dismissed after Swartz committed suicide in January 2013.
  • 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) This is a complex case with two trips to the Ninth Circuit, and another seen as likely after the latest conviction in 2013.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • United States v Nada Nadim Prouty, circa 2010. 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.
  • 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.
  • United States v. Kane, 2011. Exploiting a software bug in a poker machine does not constitute hacking because the poker machine in question was not a “protected computer” under the statute (not being connected to the Internet it was judged not to qualify as "protected computer" affecting interstate commerce) and because the sequence of button presses that triggered the bug were considered "not exceed their authorized access." As of November 2013 the defendant still faces a regular wire fraud charge.
  • Civil Cases

  • Theofel v. Farey Jones, 2003 U.S. App. Lexis 17963, decided August 28, 2003 (U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit), holding that the use of a civil subpoena which is "patently unlawful," "in bad faith," or "at least gross negligence" to gain access to stored email is a breach of both the CFAA and the Stored Communications Act.
  • International Airport Centers, L.L.C. v. Citrin, 2006, 18 U.S.C. § 1030(a)(5)(A)(i), in which Jacob Citrin deleted files from his company computer before he quit, in order to conceal alleged bad behavior while he was an employee.
  • LVRC Holdings v. Brekka, 2009 1030(a)(2), 1030(a)(4), in which LVRC sued Brekka for allegedly taking information about clients and using it to start his own competing business.
  • Craigslist v. 3Taps, 2012. 3Taps was accused by Craigslist of breaching CFAA by circumventing an IP block in order to access Craigslist's website and scrape its classified ads without consent. In August 2013, US federal judge found 3Taps's actions violated CFAA and that it faces civil damages for “unauthorized access”. Judge Breyer wrote in his decision that "the average person does not use “anonymous proxies” to bypass an IP block set up to enforce a banning communicated via personally-addressed cease-and-desist letter". He also noted "Congress apparently knew how to restrict the reach of the CFAA to only certain kinds of information, and it appreciated the public v. nonpublic distinction — but [the relevant section] contains no such restrictions or modifiers."
  • Lee v. PMSI, Inc., 2011. PMSI, Inc. sued former employee Lee for violating the CFAA by browsing Facebook and checking personal email in violation of the company's acceptable use policy. The court found that breaching an employer's acceptable use policy was not "unauthorized access" under the act and, therefore, did not violate the CFAA.
  • Sony Computer Entertainment America v. George Hotz and Hotz v. SCEA, 2011. SCEA sued "Geohot" and others for jailbreaking the PlayStation 3 system. The lawsuit alleged, among other things, that Hotz violated 18 U.S.C. § 1030(a)(2)(c) ([by] taking info from any protected computer). Hotz denied liability and contested the Court's exercise of personal jurisdiction over him. The parties settled out of court. The settlement caused Geohot to be unable to legally hack the PlayStation 3 system furthermore.
  • Pulte Homes, Inc. v. Laborers' International Union 2011. Pulte Homes brought a CFAA suit against the Laborers' International Union of North America (LIUNA). After Pulte fired an employee represented by the union, LIUNA urged members to call and send email to the company, expressing their opinions. As a result of the increased traffic, the company's email system crashed.
  • Criticism

    Provisions of the CFAA that effectively make it a federal crime to violate the terms of service of Internet sites have been criticized for allowing companies to forbid legitimate activities such as research, or remove protections found elsewhere in law. Terms of service can be changed at any time without notifying users. Tim Wu called the CFAA “the worst law in technology”.

    Aaron Swartz

    In the wake of the prosecution and subsequent suicide of Aaron Swartz, lawmakers have proposed to amend the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Representative Zoe Lofgren has drafted a bill that would help "prevent what happened to Aaron from happening to other Internet users". Aaron's Law (H.R. 2454, S. 1196) 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.

    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." Issa, who also chairs the House Oversight Committee, announced an investigation of the Justice Department's prosecution.

    As of May 2014, Aaron's Law was stalled in committee, reportedly due to tech company Oracle's financial interests.

    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.
  • References

    Computer Fraud and Abuse Act Wikipedia