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Court Rules On Whether Goofing Around on Work Computer is a Crime

by Adriana Lee | April 13, 2012April 13, 2012 6:00 pm PST

Are you familiar with the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act? If you goof around on your work computer, you should be. This archaic law — which was written in ridiculously broad terms — could’ve made you a felon just for playing Angry Birds, watching ESPN highlights or vid chatting with your air-guitar buddy on your office PC.

The 1984 law got some attention when it was used to indict a man who used his work computer to launch a new business. Talk about an epic mistake; the venture would’ve been a competitor to his then-employer, which also added trade secrets theft and other things to the list of charges. That list included a violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. The guy contested it, saying he was authorized to use the computer to acquire information, but that argument didn’t work. He was shot down in three lower courts.

Then the case hit the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

When the judge took a closer look at the matter, something seemed off. It wasn’t the accused’s innocence or guilt — he didn’t even dispute the trade secrets theft, so he seemed to acknowledge his sketchy behavior. The problem was with the law itself and the interpretation being invoked: The Justice Department contended that this old anti-hacking law still applies to any unauthorized computer use. In other words, your company would theoretically be able to prosecute you just for reading TechnoBuffalo at the office.

That’s insane. It seems this court thought so too, since it (rightly) shot down the argument.

Corporate security is serious business, and no one can fault businesses for trying to protect themselves. But let’s be rational here: Turning everyday people into criminals isn’t going to do the trick.

[via Wall Street Journal]

Adriana Lee

Adriana is the resident writer-slash-culture vulture who has written about everything from smartphones, tablets, apps, accessories, and small biz...