The Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that accessing data for an improper reason when authorized to use a computer system does not violate federal cybercrime law.
In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court narrowed the scope of the 1986 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, ruling that former Georgia police sergeant Nathan Van Buren did not violate the law by accepting money to search for information about the record of a woman he believed to be an undercover officer.
The offer was actually an FBI sting operation and Van Buren was arrested and ultimately convicted on charges that he violated the computer law. Thursday’s ruling overturned the conviction.
The law states that it is illegal “to access a computer and to use such access to obtain or alter information in the computer that the accesser is not entitled so to obtain or alter.”
Justice Amy Coney Barrett wrote in an opinion that while Van Buren “plainly flouted” his department’s policies that allowed him only to obtain database information for law enforcement purposes, he did not violate the law.
“This provision covers those who obtain information from particular areas in the computer — such as files, folders, or databases — to which their computer access does not extend,” Barrett wrote. “It does not cover those who, like Van Buren, have improper motives for obtaining information that is otherwise available to them.”
Barrett was joined in the majority by conservative justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh and the three liberal justices, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
They stated that broader interpretations of the law “would attach criminal penalties to a breathtaking amount of commonplace computer activity,” including sending personal e-mail from a company computer.
Justice Clarence Thomas authored a dissenting opinion along with Chief Justice John Roberts and Samuel Alito, arguing the majority’s ruling would allow a computer technician working to repair a celebrity’s crashed hard drive to copy and leak photos stored on the computer to the press.
They said that Van Buren “exceeded authorized access” by accessing the database in exchange for a bribe.
“Using a police database to obtain information in circumstances where that use is expressly forbidden is a crime,” they wrote.
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