Federal Crime of Computer Hacking and Best Legal Defenses
In today's advanced world, computers are everywhere and take many different forms. Computers reside in desktops, laptops, tablets, and cell phones, and all of these items must be guarded against improper intrusion and hacking.
Our most private and personal information is commonly found on our computer-driven devices, and people can use that information to steal money, open illegal accounts, and even spread harmful software.
Computer hacking falls under the umbrella of cybercrimes and it's described as the act of gaining unauthorized access to a computer system with the intent to steal or alter the data.
There are several types of internet crimes that are directly related to theft and fraud occurring from hacking a computer in order to get unlawful access to a private network of a business or corporation.
Computer hacking at the federal level is defined under 18 U.S.C. § 1030 and other internet related offenses as the illegal activity crosses state lines.
Obviously, the computers in question are frequently located in different states, which means this form of white collar fraud crime can be prosecuted in a federal courtroom.
18 U.S.C. § 1030 computer hacking is typically prosecuted under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act that includes a wide range of computer crimes that involve a specific intent to commit fraud, obtain something of value, or cause harm.
Computer crimes can be prosecuted at the state or federal level. This article from our Los Angeles criminal defense lawyers will explain the laws below.
What is a Federal Computer Crime?
Computer crimes generally relate to the use of computers with the intent to access:
- unauthorized information such as government information,
- financial records,
- trafficking computer passwords,
- damaging computer or destroy files,
- simple hacking (trespassing),
- access national security secrets,
- access private banking information,
- to commit espionage,
- any information from a protected computer.
Under federal law, a “protected computer” is a computer meant for the exclusive use of a financial institution, federal government, or a computer used for interstate commerce or communication, or a computer that is part of the voting system.
18 U.S.C § 1030 is the main section in the U.S. Code that directly prohibits criminal activity using computers.
This statute prohibits computer hacking and other computer crimes such as:
- fraud, and
- spreading malware.
You do not have to actually complete these crimes to be charged under federal law. Simply conspiring with someone else to commit a crime or attempting to commit a computer crime is enough to face federal charges.
Computer Fraud and Abuse Act
Congress passed the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) is 1986 that is codified under Title 18 U.S. Code § 1030.
Put simply, it's a federal crime to gain unauthorized access (hacking) to protected computers with the specific intent to defraud or cause damage.
Computers are considered protected if they are a computer used by the government, by banking and financial institutions, if they are used in or affect interstate or foreign commerce and communications.
Further, the statute also makes it illegal to conspire or attempt to commit hacking, even in a situation where you did not follow through with the plan, or were unsuccessful in your attempt.
What Are Some Related Federal Crimes?
Computers can be used in many ways to cause harm, and while 18 U.S.C. § 1030 covers many types of computer crime, it does not cover all of them.
As a result, there are other related crimes prohibited by federal law, which include:
- 18 U.S.C. § 372 – conspiracy,
- 18 U.S.C. § 472 – counterfeiting,
- 18 U.S.C. § 1028 – identity theft,
- 18 U.S.C. § 1029 – credit card fraud,
- 18 U.S.C. § 1343 – wire fraud,
- 18 U.S.C. § 1344 – bank fraud.
These related crimes can be charged alongside computer crime charges or can be used to negotiate plea deals to avoid more serious charges.
A federal criminal charge can result anytime the use of a computer or other electronic device causes some type of communication or messaging across state lines.
This is commonly found under federal law relating to credit card fraud, mail fraud, and wire fraud.
What Are the Punishments?
If charged and convicted with federal hacking under 18 U.S.C. § 1030, you are facing up to one year in federal prison for minor offenses, between 10-20 years in prison for the serious offenses, and life in prison if the hacking resulted in somebody's death, but it will depend on different factors, such as:
- severity of the crime;
- monetary value of the stolen information, and
- defendant's criminal record.
There are some computer crimes that are punished with as little as one year in jail and fines for unauthorized access to a computer.
A federal judge will consider the severity and type of offense to determine what level of punishment is appropriate.
As noted, serious computer crime offenses that result in significant money loss or the illegal use of information can result in prison sentences as long as 10 years and can be enhanced to 20 years if the defendant has prior convictions.
Fines can be as high as $10,000, and restitution can be as high as necessary to restore the victim to their original position before the crime was committed. Other crimes can enhance these sentences.
What Are The Best Defenses to Computer Hacking?
The federal government considers cybercrimes a serious issue, but an experienced criminal defense lawyer can often challenge the hacking allegations with a variety of arguments.
The burden of proof is on the federal prosecutor who must be able to prove all the elements of the crime beyond any reasonable doubt to get a conviction.
A federal prosecutor must prove that a defendant intentionally hacked or tried to hack a computer. This means that the defendant knew what they were doing and intentionally meant to do it.
When people use computers, they make careless mistakes such as clicking the wrong icon or misspelling words when typing.
If a defendant mistakenly clicks a link or icon which causes malware to be released or a hack into a protected computer, then this mistake can be used as a viable legal defense since the defendant did not mean to click on the item nor did they mean for the harm that was ultimately caused.
Put simply, we might be able to argue there was no such criminal intent that is necessary for a conviction.
There may be constitutional violations such as a violation of the fourth amendment against unreasonable search and seizure.
If law enforcement seized a computer and searched its contents without first getting a warrant signed by a judge, or acts without an appropriate warrant exception, any evidence seized could be thrown out by a presiding judge.
If the computer is the only real piece of evidence in the case, this could lead to a full dismissal of charges.
Note: this type of defense is raised in pretrial motions and is not an issue for a jury to decide at trial.
Other defenses against federal computer hacking charges include you simply did not unlawfully access the computer, had a good-faith belief you were authorized to access the computer, and you are the victim of a false allegation.
Depending on the details of the case, we might be able to negotiate with the prosecutor for a favorable plea bargain.
Eisner Gorin LLP is based in Los Angeles County, California, with two separate office locations. You can contact us for an initial consultation at (877) 781-1570.