Penalties for Hacking and Computer Trespass
Hacking and computer trespass can lead to serious criminal penalties. Here is an overview of some of the laws and punishments around unauthorized computer access:
Federal Laws and Penalties
The main federal law dealing with hacking and computer trespass is the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) . The CFAA prohibits accessing a computer without authorization or exceeding authorized access. Penalties under the CFAA can include:
- Up to 1 year in prison for simple unauthorized access offenses
- Up to 5 years in prison if computers involved government computers or computers at financial institutions
- Up to 10 years in prison if the offense was committed for commercial advantage, malicious destruction, or other serious crimes
- Up to 20 years in prison if serious bodily injury results or if prior hacking offenses were committed
State Laws and Penalties
Most states have their own computer crime laws that prohibit unauthorized access similar to the CFAA. Exact laws and punishments vary by state but can include:
- Felonies punishable by years in prison for offenses like identity theft, damage to systems, or hacking government computers
- Misdemeanors punishable by up to 1 year in jail for unauthorized access and computer trespass
For example, in California unauthorized computer access can be prosecuted as a misdemeanor or felony depending on intent and damage caused. As a misdemeanor it is punishable by up to 1 year in jail. As a felony, it is punishable by 16 months to 3 years in prison.
In addition to criminal penalties, hacking and unauthorized computer access can also lead to civil liability. Victims can sue hackers for damages under various legal theories like trespass, breach of contract, and violation of the CFAA or state computer crime laws.
Damages can include the costs of investigating the hacking, repairing systems, lost revenue, and harm to reputation. If the hacking violated privacy laws, statutory damages up to $1000 per person may be available.
There are various defenses that may apply in hacking and computer trespass cases:
- Authorization: If you had permission to access a system, there is no crime. Authorization is a common defense in cases involving employees, contractors, or others with some level of approved access.
- No intent: Many computer crime laws require intent to access or damage systems. If there was no intent, there may be no crime.
- Misidentification: If you did not actually access the computer system, you cannot be guilty of hacking or trespass.
- Good faith belief of authorization: If you had a reasonable, good faith belief you had authorization to access a system, this may provide a defense even if the access was technically not permitted.
- Lack of damage/loss: In some cases, there must be proof of damage, loss, or harm for a computer crime conviction. If no damage resulted, there may be no crime.
- Unlawful police conduct: If evidence was obtained illegally by police, it may be suppressed and the case dismissed.
Avoiding Hacking Charges
The best way to avoid hacking charges is to avoid unauthorized computer access entirely. Some tips:
- Do not access any computer system without clear permission
- Follow all policies and agreements related to computer and network access
- If in doubt about authorization, ask first before proceeding
- Do not share logins or passwords
- Do not try to bypass security measures or exploit vulnerabilities
- If notified access is unauthorized, stop immediately
Getting Legal Help
Hacking charges can have serious consequences. If questioned by police or charged, it is recommended to consult with an attorney experienced in computer crime defense. An attorney can advise on defenses based on the specific facts and negotiate with prosecutors for reduced charges or punishments.
With the right legal help, certain penalties may be avoided. But it is important to involve an attorney early in the process before discussing the case with law enforcement.