Supreme Court Narrows Scope of U.S. Computer-Hacking Law

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The U.S. Supreme Court narrowed the reach of a federal computer-hacking law, overturning the conviction of a Georgia police sergeant who sold information from a confidential law-enforcement database to an FBI informant.

The justices, voting 6-3, said the U.S. Computer Fraud and Abuse Act doesn’t apply when an authorized user of a database uses the information for an unauthorized purpose. The ruling is a victory for Nathan Van Buren, a former police sergeant in Cumming, Georgia, who had been sentenced to 18 months in prison.

Writing for the court, Justice Amy Coney Barrett rejected an interpretation that had been pressed by former President Donald Trump’s administration, saying its approach would have turned millions of law-abiding citizens into criminals for violating computer-use policies.

“The government’s interpretation of the statute would attach criminal penalties to a breathtaking amount of commonplace computer activity,” Barrett wrote.

The case split the court’s conservative wing. The three Trump appointees -- Barrett and Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh -- joined the three liberal justices in the majority. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito dissented.

Thomas wrote that “much of the federal code criminalizes common activity.” He said federal law also makes it a crime to remove “a single grain of sand” from the National Mall in Washington, break a lamp in a government building or let a horse eat grass on federal land.

“It is understandable to be uncomfortable with so much conduct being criminalized, but that discomfort does not give us authority to alter statutes,” Thomas wrote for the three dissenters.

The disputed computer-hacking law makes it illegal “to access 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.”

Prosecutors said the informant promised to pay Van Buren $5,000 to search the law-enforcement database for the license plate of a woman the informant said he met at a local strip club. Prosecutors said Van Buren ran the search from his patrol-car computer after using his valid credentials to access the database.

The case is Van Buren v. United States, 19-783.

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