Supreme Court Issues Radical New Reading of Anti-Hacking Law

 Morning commuters walk by The U.S. Supreme Court building May 24, 2021 in Washington, DC.

Morning commuters walk by The U.S. Supreme Court building May 24, 2021 in Washington, DC.
Photo: Anna Moneymaker (Getty Images)

The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday said a Georgia police officer had not violated the countrys main anti-hacking law by improperly accessing a government database for financial gain, a decision likely to curtail prosecutions under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) of individuals who misuse computer systems to which they have legal access.

The police officer, Nathan Van Buren, was arrested and charged under the 1986 law after accepting payment from an FBI informant to search a law enforcement database of license plate information. The government charged Van Buren with violating the CFAA, which prohibits people from knowingly exceeding their authorized access to a computer system.

The ruling is widely viewed as a win for criminal defense lawyers whove long criticized the statute as overly ambiguous and whove accused prosecutors of employing an overly expansive interpretation. The government has previously brought charges under the CFAA against people accused of violating corporate computer policies and website terms of service.

The CFAA first arose in earnest as a national topic of debate in late 2011 after the Justice Department indicted Aaron Swartz, a young technology activist, for downloading a large number of academic journals from MITs computer network. He was charged, among other counts, with accessing MITs network in excess of authorized access.

A programming prodigy who invented the software behind RSS at age 14, Swartz died by suicide two years later. His father would later accuse federal prosecutors of hounding his son to death, calling the pursuita complete miscarriage of justice.

In Thursdays 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court ruled Van Burens use of the license plate databasehowever improperwas not unauthorized insofar as the CFAA is concerned.

In sum, an individual exceeds authorized access when he accesses a computer with authorization but then obtains information located in particular areas of the computersuch as files, folders, or databasesthat are off limits to him, the courts opinion, delivered by Justice Amy Coney Barrett, says.

Barrett goes on to note the government has never argued that Van Buren was prohibited from accessing the database, even if his motives for doing so, in this case, were immoral. The only question is whether Van Buren could use the system to retrieve license-plate information. Both sides agree that he could, she wrote.

Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Neil Gorsuch dissented.

This is a developing story and will be updated soon.

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