Unauthorized Computer Access (Otherwise Known as Hacking)

Over the past few decades, the internet has become an essential component of life for most individuals and organizations. People use the internet for social media, e-commerce, and as a platform to store personal identifying information. Criminal activity aimed at accessing this type of data has also increased in the past few decades.

Unauthorized computer access, popularly referred to as hacking, describes a criminal action whereby someone uses a computer to knowingly gain access to data in a system without permission to access that data. Hacking is illegal under both California and federal law, and can result in heavy penalties. 

Read more below to learn about the laws, penalties, and defenses for the charge of unauthorized computer access.

California Law

Under California Penal Code Section 502(c) PC, unauthorized computer access occurs when an individual:

  1. Knowingly accesses and without permission alters, damages, deletes, destroys, or otherwise uses any data or computer system to:
  2. Execute a scheme to defraud or extort a victim OR
  3. Wrongfully control or obtain money, property or data.
  4. Knowingly accesses and without permission takes, copies, or makes use of any data from a computer OR takes or copies supporting documentation. 3. Knowingly introduces any contaminant or virus into any computer system.
  5. Knowingly and without permission uses the Internet domain name or profile of another individual, corporation, or entity in connection with the sending of electronic messages that damage a computer system.
  6. Knowingly and without permission disrupts or causes the denial of governmental computer services.
  7. Knowingly and without permission disrupts or causes the denial of public safety infrastructure computer services.

In other words, intentionally hacking into someone else's computer to alter, copy, or damage their data is illegal under California law. It is also illegal to help another individual or entity engage in this sort of criminal behavior.

Under California law, hacking is a “wobbler” crime, meaning that the offender can be charged with either a misdemeanor or felony. The severity of the charge depends on the defendant's criminal history and the specific facts of the crime. If sentenced as a misdemeanor, the defendant can be jailed for up to a year. If sentenced as a felony, the defendant can be sent to prison for up to ten years.

Federal Law

In 1986, Congress passed the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), the federal statute that prohibits unauthorized computer access. Under federal law, unauthorized computer access describes the act of:

  1. Knowingly accessing a computer without authorization to obtain:
  2. Financial information
  3. Information from a governmental department or agency
  4. Information from any protected computer with the intent to defraud
  5. Knowingly causing the transmission of a program, information, or code from a protected computer
  6. Knowingly accessing a protected computer and causing damage and loss to that computer

The wording of the CFAA is so vague that prosecutors have been able to successfully abuse the law to convict a wide array of offenders. Under federal law, the penalty for hacking includes high fines and sentences of up to 10 years of prison time.

Defenses to Hacking Charges

If a defendant's computer has been used by another person, or if a defendant has a computer virus that allows others to access their computer, a criminal defense attorney can argue that the defendant has been falsely accused. Because unauthorized computer access is a wobbler crime in California, attorneys can argue charges down from felonies to misdemeanors.

Have you or a loved one been charged with unauthorized computer access? Protect your rights and your freedom. Contact criminal defense attorney Seth P. Chazin online or call immediately at 1-800-242-1514 to start planning your defense strategy for your federal case.

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