Penalties for Federal Computer Hacking in New York City
Computer hacking has become a major issue in New York City and across the country. As more and more of our lives move online, the opportunities for hackers to access private information and cause damage have grown exponentially. This article will examine the various penalties under federal law for computer hacking crimes committed in New York City.
What Constitutes Computer Hacking?
Computer hacking refers to intentionally accessing a computer or network without authorization in order to steal data, install malware or spyware, or cause other damage. Under federal law, the main statute dealing with computer hacking crimes is the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA).
The CFAA defines several computer crimes, including:
- Unauthorized access to a computer to obtain financial information, trade secrets, or any information of value
- Intentionally accessing a computer to defraud or cause damage
- Trafficking in passwords or access codes to protected computers
- Threatening to damage a computer in order to extort money or any thing of value
In addition, the law prohibits conspiracy or attempt to commit any of these offenses.
Jurisdiction for Hacking Crimes
The CFAA applies to any computer or network used in interstate commerce or communication, which today includes virtually all internet-connected devices. As a result, most hacking crimes fall under federal jurisdiction.
In addition, if the hacking targets a government computer, involves theft of trade secrets, or uses the internet, federal agencies like the FBI typically get involved. For serious hacking crimes with a nationwide impact, the U.S. Secret Service may lead the investigation.
So in New York City, a local computer hacking crime can easily become a federal case depending on the details.
Penalties Under the CFAA
The CFAA classifies computer hacking and related crimes as either misdemeanors or felonies depending on the nature of the crime.
For a first offense misdemeanor conviction, penalties can include:
- Up to 1 year in prison
- Up to $100,000 in fines
Felony convictions carry much stiffer penalties:
- 5 years in prison for hacking to obtain information worth over $5,000
- 10 years for hacking a government computer or for prior hacking convictions
- 20 years for hacking to cause serious damage or aid foreign governments
- Life imprisonment if hacking results in death
In addition to prison time, felony convictions can also involve fines up to $250,000.
While the CFAA sets maximum sentences, federal judges use sentencing guidelines to determine appropriate penalties based on the specific circumstances of each case.
Factors that can increase a sentence include:
- The sophistication of the hack and steps taken to conceal it
- The number of victims impacted
- The extent of losses or damage caused
- Violations of public trust if the victim was a government entity
- Prior criminal history of the defendant
Mitigating factors can include:
- Minimal planning or attempt to conceal the hack
- Limited or no actual damage caused
- History of employment and lack of prior crimes
- Cooperation with authorities to prevent or solve other crimes
Judges can depart from the guidelines when justified, but must explain their reasoning.
Beyond jail time and fines, a federal computer hacking conviction also brings additional lifelong consequences:
- Felony record that must be disclosed on job, school, and housing applications
- Potential loss of certain civil rights like voting and gun ownership
- Possible deportation for non-citizens
- Difficulty obtaining professional licenses
- Ineligibility for federal benefits like student loans
Defenses Against Hacking Charges
The following defenses may apply in federal computer hacking cases:
- Authorization: The defendant had permission to access the computer, network, or files.
- Lack of criminal intent: The unauthorized access was accidental or done without intent to steal data or cause harm.
- Misidentification: Someone else used the defendant’s computer or login credentials to commit the hacking.
- Unconstitutional vagueness: The CFAA is unconstitutionally vague about what constitutes unauthorized access.
- Free speech: The hacking revealed information protected under the First Amendment.
- Entrapment: The defendant was induced by government agents to commit hacking crimes.
An experienced federal criminal defense lawyer can evaluate the evidence and determine if any viable defenses apply to fight the charges.
Recent Notable Hacking Cases in New York City
Here are a few recent high-profile computer hacking prosecutions in New York City:
- In 2018, Joel Ortiz was sentenced to 10 years in prison for stealing over $5 million in cryptocurrency through SIM swap hacking attacks while still a college student.
- In 2019, hacker Trevon Fowler received a 4 year prison sentence for hacking into Microsoft and Nintendo servers and stealing pre-release software and employee credentials.
- In 2021, Yaroslav Vasinskyi pled guilty to hacking charges for his role in the massive SolarWinds supply chain attack and faces up to 25 years in prison.
Finding an Experienced Lawyer is Critical
Facing federal computer crime charges can be overwhelming. But an experienced lawyer understands the complexities of cybercrime law and can build the strongest defense. They will thoroughly examine the prosecution’s evidence for violations of procedure or civil liberties. And they can effectively argue mitigating factors to seek the lightest sentence possible if convicted.
With so much at stake, those charged with federal hacking crimes in New York City should immediately consult with a criminal defense lawyer. The lawyer can evaluate the case specifics and discuss all the options for fighting the charges. With an aggressive defense, some hacking cases can be dismissed or pleaded down to lesser charges. So do not delay in seeking experienced legal counsel.