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Federal courts split on application of CFAA in employment cases

The casual sharing of a computer access password between employees in Illinois could set the stage for a possible charge of violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. The federal government originally intended this law to penalize hackers who accessed protected computer systems. However, numerous cases against employees accused of unauthorized access to company computers have produced mixed results among federal appeals courts.

A case presented before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ended with the court deciding that the CFAA would not apply to an employee accused of downloading information from one employer that was allegedly given to a new employer. The court chose not to label the employee's misconduct as hacking.

Other circuits have not been as generous with employees. The Seventh Circuit decision against an employee who allegedly stole information to the detriment of an employer allowed the CFAA to apply. The court cited the disloyalty of the employee and behavior that exceeded legitimate computer access. In similar cases, the First, Fifth and Eleventh Circuits interpreted evidence as violations of the CFAA. Under such a wide interpretation, acts as simple as two co-workers sharing a password to print a document could result in a crime.

Computer crimes that fall under the scope of the CFAA could become federal crimes. Therefore, a person facing such a charge may want to reach out to an attorney for representation. The lawyer could examine the evidence and look for weaknesses that might translate into defense opportunities. Negotiations with a prosecutor could lead to the reduction or dismissal of charges if the defense attorney can challenge the validity of evidence. Should a case go to trial, an attorney could strive to cast doubt on the evidence and convince a jury to acquit the defendant.

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