There are multiple types of computer crimes, but some of the most common examples involve hacking. Data breaches are becoming increasingly common, and hacking has affected all aspects of life, from economics to politics.

Hacking is not always a crime. There are varying degrees of hacking. However, hacking is becoming increasingly prevalent in our society. It’s important to understand what hacking is and where the law draws the line. Read on to learn more about hacking laws, punishments for hacking, and what remedies may apply to victims of hacking.

What Is Hacking?

Hacking may be defined as unauthorized access or entry into computers, computer files, online storage mechanisms, and other computer-related technologies. This entry often results in a data breach. Usually, hacking is aimed at obtaining confidential information such as financial records, bank accounts, company client profiles, trade secrets, copyrighted information, and other similar types of information. A person who is proficient at hacking and frequently engages in the activity is often labeled a “hacker.”

Many different crimes often involve some form of hacking. For instance, identity theft commonly occurs when a hacker gains access to a person’s personal identity files and information. One of the main difficulties with hacking is that it can be difficult to trace a hacker’s activities. However, many different programs and computer mechanisms are designed to prevent and trace computer fraud and hacking activities.

Hacking is not always a crime. Hackers are occasionally legally granted permission to exploit security networks. In other words, hackers sometimes have the appropriate consent or authorization to test the security of a network.
Hacking crosses the line and becomes criminal when hackers access a computer system without consent or authorization. If a hacker acts without consent or any lawful authorization from a law enforcement agency or a court order and proceeds to:

  • Penetrate a business’s firewall to access private information, or
  • Use phishing techniques to install malware onto a desktop or laptop computer with the intent to monitor communications,

Then they can be charged with a crime.

What Are Some Examples of Hacking?

Hacking can be accomplished through many different means. These can include:

  • Stealing someone’s password or computer security information
  • Using computer programs or viruses to access computer files
  • Physically stealing computer hardware and accessing the information later
  • Using online mechanisms or other cybercrime techniques to gain entry into computer networks from a remote location
  • Accessing information stored in “cloud” storage devices
  • Tampering with wi-fi connections to gain access to local networks
  • Gaining password/security information through lawful means, then abusing those access privileges for personal use (this is common in embezzlement-related cases)
  • Altering computer codes or website information

What are the Federal Hacking Laws?

Several federal laws address the issue of hacking. These laws include:

  • The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA)
  • The Stored Communications Act (SCA)
  • The Electronic Communications Privacy Act (EPCA)
  • The Defend Trade Secrets Act (DTSA)

What is the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act?

The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) is the federal government’s leading anti-hacking law. It prohibits unauthorized access to another person’s computer. The law was originally meant to protect the computers owned by the U.S. government and financial institutions. However, the Act has been amended to include practically all computers in the country. Devices such as servers, desktop computers, laptops, cell phones, and tablets are all protected under the Act.

What are the Criminal Penalties Under the CFAA?

Below are examples of CFAA violations and the applicable punishments:

  • Obtaining National Security Information: Ten years; 20 years maximum for repeat offenders
  • Accessing a Computer to Defraud and Obtain Value: 5 years; 10 years maximum for repeat offenders
  • Accessing a Computer and Obtaining Information: 1-5 years; 10 years maximum for a first conviction. 1-10 years; 20 years maximum for repeat offenders
  • Intentionally Damaging by Knowing Transmission: 1-10 years; 20 years maximum for repeat offenders
  • Extortion Involving a Computer: 5 years; 10 years maximum for repeat offenders
  • Trafficking in Passwords: 1 year; 10 years maximum for repeat offenders.

What are Civil Violations Under the CFAA?

The CFAA’s penalties are mostly for criminal violations. However, in 1994, the Act was expanded to include punishments for civil suits, in addition to criminal prosecution.

Civil violations under the CFAA include the following:

  • Obtaining information from a computer through unauthorized access
  • Damaging computer data
  • Trafficking in a computer password used to access a computer
  • Transmitting spam

Federal anti-hacking laws provide civil remedies for hacking victims. These remedies include:

  • Injunctive relief
  • Seizure of property
  • Seizure of the stolen information and the electronic devices used to carry out the hacking.

What are the Other Federal Hacking Laws?

The Stored Communications Act is very similar to the CFAA. The Stored Communications Act protects electronically stored communications and data, such as emails, texts, instant messages, social media interactions, cloud computing and storage, and blogs. The Stored Communications Act has lots of overlap with the CFAA. Oftentimes, hackers will be in violation of both statutes.

The Electronic Communications Privacy Act (EPCA) is a counterpart to the SCA. The EPCA forbids international interception of electronic communication or “data in motion.”

What Do I Need to Know About State Hacking Laws?

Although most hacking laws are federal, states have enacted hacking laws. Every state has computer crime laws. Some states address hacking more specifically with laws that explicitly prohibit unauthorized access, computer trespass, or the use of viruses and malware.

Half of the states in the U.S. have laws that target denial of service (DoS) attacks. DoS hackers flood a system or server with traffic. When a system or server is flooded with traffic, it causes slow speeds and denies access to legitimate users. Florida penalizes this crime most severely, categorizing DoS crimes as first-degree felonies.

Several states have laws that specifically criminalize ransomware. Ransomware occurs when malware is installed onto a computer. The malware denies access to the computer until a ransom is paid.

Are There Any Legal Penalties for Hacking?

Hacking is a serious violation and can lead to serious legal consequences. Depending on the damage rendered or the amounts stolen, hacking is often classified as a misdemeanor or felony white-collar crime. Criminal penalties can include jail or prison time and criminal fines and retribution. In addition, a person or company whose computer files have been hacked may often seek civil damages as well. This can result in monetary damages awards for lost business income or lost profits.

In particular, hacking computers owned or operated by the U.S. government can lead to severe legal penalties under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, the Espionage Act, or other similar laws.

Do I Need a Lawyer to Help Me with Hacking Legal Issues?

Hacking laws enforce strict penalties for people caught engaging in hacking and other computer-related offenses. You may need to hire a criminal lawyer in your area if you need assistance with any type of hacking claim. Your attorney can provide legal research and guidance regarding hacking lawsuits.

Hacking and other technology-based laws often change as technology evolves; however, your attorney can provide you with up-to-date information on new laws. Also, if you need to file a lawsuit and appear in court, your lawyer can represent and guide you during the process.