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Is the Personal Use of a Work Computer a Crime?

The United States Supreme Court issued a decision on June 3, 2021, that has not received much media attention but may be of great interest to anyone who has ever viewed their personal social media pages, checked personal emails or direct messages, done personal online shopping, or checked sports scores on a work computer.

Van Buren v. the United States, the case of interest, involved a Georgia police officer who had run a license-plate search on the police department’s computer system in exchange for $5,000. Officer Van Buren had the authorization to access the computer system through his employment, he did so for a non-law enforcement purpose, which was a violation of the department’s policy.

He was then charged with and convicted of a felony under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986, and sentenced to 18 months in prison.

His conviction, however, was overturned by the Court.

Justice Amy Coney Barrett wrote for the majority that “the government’s interpretation of the statute would attach criminal penalties to a breathtaking amount of commonplace computer activity.” She further wrote that this could criminalize any activity that violated the “terms of service” on a website or app. Barrett further reasoned that under the government’s interpretation of this statute, it would “criminalize everything from embellishing an online dating profile to using a pseudonym on Facebook.”

The legislative intent behind the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986 was to criminalize the hacking of a computer system from an outside source. The government argued that it should also be applied here as a precedent to criminalize insider sabotage or insider hacking of a system. These, in truth, are serious and grave concerns in today’s world; unfortunately, there currently is no direct law to cover these issues that takes modern and commonplace computer usage into account.

The government attempted to stretch the current law but was rejected by SCOTUS. Here we see how technology evolves at a hyper-speed, but the law in regulating its proper uses lags far behind. Thankfully though, at least for now, checking the score of last night’s game from the work computer, will not result in a prison sentence.

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