The body of laws governing crimes on the Internet are some of the most rapidly changing of all state laws. Known collectively as computer crime laws, these statutes cover a wide variety of activities including child pornography on the Internet; copyright infringement; and fraud using malware, hacking, and/or phishing.
Computer Crime Laws Examples
While many may be familiar with "hacking" from watching television shows, a broader variety of activities may qualify as computer crimes.
Examples of common computer crimes include:
- Improperly accessing a computer, system, or network;
- Introducing a virus or other contaminant into a computer system;
- Modifying, damaging, using, disclosing, copying, or taking programs or data;
- Using a computer in a scheme to defraud;
- Interfering with someone else's computer access or use;
- Using encryption in aid of a crime;
- Falsifying e-mail source information; and
- Stealing an information service from a provider.
Computer Crimes and Federal Law
There have been many efforts to regulate activity on the Internet, mostly at the federal level. Federal legislation in this area includes the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) 18 U.S. Code § 1030 and certain Computer Provisions of the USA Patriot Act.
The Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) is a partnership between the FBI and the National White Collar Crime Center, established to address fraud and other types of crime committed online. If you have been a victim of Internet crime, you should report the violation through the IC3 or local law enforcement immediately.
Computer Crimes and State Laws
At the state level, it is generally agreed that theft of information or money in electronic form is much the same as theft in any other form. Therefore, state laws on computer crime focus on theft of information or money through the use of a computer or an online computer service.
Mental State Required to Commit a Computer Crime
Virtually every state requires that one have the requisite mental state before they may be convicted of a computer crime. One must willfully, knowingly, or purposely access computer-based data and intend to steal, destroy, or alter computer-based information; steal services or passwords; or otherwise interfere with computers or networks. It is not a crime to accidentally or unintentionally wander into areas on the internet where valuable or secure information may reside; there must be intent to steal, destroy, or defraud to be found guilty.
Only a handful of states don't explicitly ban access to certain computer files. In most states mere access (with intent to commit a crime) can be prosecuted as a crime. Also, states vary on whether the a computer crime can be classified as a misdemeanor or felony.
In California, for instance, computer crimes that involve unlawfully accessing, changing, or damaging a computer, computer system, or computer network may result in a fine, imprisonment, or both. In New Mexico, if a defendant causes damage greater than $250 dollars, the crime can be charged as a felony.
As the technology becomes ubiquitous, the law in this controversial area is sure to be subject to sweeping changes. According to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), cyberterrorism is any "premeditated, politically motivated attack against information, computer systems, computer programs, and data which results in violence against non-combatant targets by sub-national groups or clandestine agents."
It is anticipated that a growing number of states will define certain computer crimes as terrorism and then enhancing the penalties for committing such crimes.
A Final Word About Computer Crimes
State computer crimes laws are constantly changing -- contact a lawyer who specializes in Internet law or criminal defense work or conduct your own legal research to verify the state law(s) you are researching.
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