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SCOTUS Narrows Computer Misuse Statute

Purposefully misusing information obtained via a computer does not violate a key federal statute, so long as the information was obtained by someone with proper authority to access the information, according to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling June 3, 2021. The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986 (CFAA) is intended stop people from improperly accessing computers of others to collect information. The core provision of the statute makes it illegal and also creates civil liability when a person exceeds his or her authority to obtain information from a computer and defines “exceeding authority” as “access[ing] a computer with authorization and to use such access to obtain or alter information in the computer that the accesser is not entitled so to obtain or alter.”

The Van Buren v. United States decision narrowed the scope of the statute to be applicable only when the initial access to the data was unauthorized and not when the subsequent use of properly accessed data was unauthorized. This means that owners of sensitive data and other information will need to rely on other types of constraints to dissuade people from improperly using information they obtain when rightfully accessing a computer system. This creates a greater necessity to beef up employee manuals and other documents which spell out how a company’s computer system may and may not be used. This may also heighten the reliance on the federal Defend Trade Secrets Act of 2016; any state’s adoption of a trade secrets statute, such as the Maryland Uniform Trade Secrets Act; specific employment agreements and employee policies incorporated into an agreement.

At its core, the Supreme Court decision turned on how the word “so” in the statute should be interpreted. The issue was whether the definition of “exceeding authority” meant that the statute applied to improper access or to improper usage. The Court ruled that the language only referred to improper access. It may be that Congress will revise the CFAA statute to broaden its scope to include improper usage, as some lower courts had ruled as the correct interpretation. Also notable in the opinion was that the 6-3 majority comprised the three more liberal justices and the three justices appointed by former President Donald Trump. The other three longer-tenured conservative justices were in the minority.


Ned T. Himmelrich
410-576-4171 • nhimmelrich@gfrlaw.com