Reading this article could land you in prison.
The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act has been on the books since the 1980s to allow the feds to go after the culprits of malicious hacks and cybercrimes. An addendum to the act that Congress is expected to take a look at today, however, can cause almost any misuse of a computer to be interpreted as a felony.
The Senate Judiciary Committee will vote on an updated version of the act on Friday that will make it a felony crime to use a computer in a way that “exceeds authorized access.” But what exactly constitutes authorized access?
The wording of the addition creates a slippery slope that could cause nearly anyone to be punished for violating the rules of, well, anyone. “The problem” with the proposed legislation, says Orin Kerr of The Wall Street Journal, “is that a lot of routine computer use can exceed ‘authorized access.'”
The move comes at a time when high-profile hacks like the ones waged on Sony, Congress, the Senate and the CIA have not only jeopardized critical data, but also exposed the lack of security on some major Web servers. While waging a war on governmental websites has always been a risk that could land you behind bars for quite some time, violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act has always been a misdemeanor. Because such, the government rarely has federal prosecutor charge people with lower profile crimes. If the Act is updated to allow for a felony conviction, however, the feds could be quick to wage complaints at anyone using a computer for anything outside of any particular guidelines.
Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt) spoke to Congress earlier this month to voice concern about the updated Act.“We want you to concentrate on the real cyber-crimes, and not the minor things,” Leahy said to James Baker, the associate deputy general of the Department of Justice.
Al Franken, Democratic senator from Minnesota, added to Baker that “people don’t read those policies,” referring to the terms-of-service and computer-use-policies that are everywhere from employment whitepapers to sign-up screens on Facebook. He said that, if they do read them, they are “long and complex and full of fine print” that the average computer user is quick to ignore.
In a joint statement from groups including the Center for Democracy and Technology, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Americans for Tax Reform, they write Congress that the legislation “will lead to overbroad application of the law,” and add that “At least one federal prosecutor has brought criminal charges against a user of a social network who signed up under a pseudonym in violation of terms of service” already in the past.