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US appeals court rejects government attempt to prosecute improper computer use as 'hacking'

US appeals court rejects government attempt to prosecute improper computer use as 'hacking'


The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has rejected a government attempt to prosecute David Nosol under a hacking statute for getting colleagues to copy sensitive information from a computer that they had access to.

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The US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has shot down hacking charges against a man accused of violating restrictions on a work computer. David Nosal, who was attempting to start a business to compete with a company he'd previously worked for, had convinced former coworkers to use their credentials to log into a company computer and take client information from a database. Although the coworkers had access to the database, the federal government charged Nosal with violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), designed to prosecute people who access computers "without authorization."

Despite initially agreeing with the federal government, the court has now reversed its decision, saying that "the government’s interpretation would transform the CFAA from an anti-hacking statute into an expansive misappropriation statute." Nosal may still be guilty of fraud, but letting this law apply to anyone who uses a computer in a way that's forbidden by the company or group that owns it "may well include everyone who uses a computer," the court notes, and could even affect employees playing flash games or shopping on a work PC. Limiting the CFAA specifically to people who gain authorization above what they're supposed to have, meanwhile, would still allow hackers both inside and outside a company to be charged with violating it.

Nosal himself is far from in the clear: he's also facing charges of mail fraud, trade secret theft, and other criminal acts that have nothing to do with hacking. However, as Wired notes, Wikileaks informant Bradley Manning is also being charged with violations of the CFAA, and this decision could affect whether Manning will be convicted of "hacking" the military network when he copied information from it. It also conflicts with the decisions of three other circuit courts, meaning it could be taken up by the Supreme Court. The Ninth Circuit's decision wasn't unanimous, however, and the dissent accused the majority of "knocking down straw men" by presenting hypothetical situations like "playing sudoku."