Staying Legal

Running a computer or even a network of computers might seem a relatively innocent thing to do. However, you need to be careful in your actions, otherwise you might break a law that you didn’t even know existed. And ignorance of the law is no defense, so it pays to know what you can and can’t do.

The internet has long been viewed as a pretty lawless place, with global trading and data transfer making legislation difficult to enforce across several boundaries. Nevertheless, many of the new laws are aimed at cracking down on the worst offenders. And while they are generally aimed at the real villains out there, certain people with no criminal intent have been caught out.

Computer Fraud

The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act became law in 1984 and has been amended several times since then, with the latest amendment being the Identity Theft Enforcement and Restitution Act of 2008. The Act is mainly aimed at protecting government computers and those operated by government agencies or financial institutions. It makes it a criminal offence to obtain financial or national security data. Whilst this Act is unlikely to affect law-abiding citizens, there are others that are more likely to catch you out.

The No Electronic Theft (NET) Act is a federal law that makes copyright infringement a criminal offence. If you watch a movie onDVD, you’ll see an FBI warning before it starts. Like most people, you probably don’t read it, but it refers to theNETAct. The effect is that making a copy can lead to a maximum five year prison term and up to $250,000 in fines. This applies to any copyrighted material so making a copy for a friend isn’t the innocent act you might think it is.

Anyone with less innocent intent might fall foul of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which makes it a federal crime to disable any copy protection. So trying to get round the copy protection on a movie, music or software program can land you in trouble even if you don’t actually copy anything.

Illegal Access

As with much US legislation, what you can do may depend on where you are. Several states make it a criminal offense to access a computer or network when you don’t have the owner’s permission. Although you might think this is something you wouldn’t do, it’s all too easy to access an insecure wi-fi network. If you do this when you know you shouldn’t, you can get in trouble. Several people have been arrested, including aMichiganman in 2007 who accessed a café’s wi-fi network while sitting in his car. Indeed, if you have a wireless antenna specifically to access wi-fi networks, this can be considered a ‘criminal instrument’ in some states, which can lead to prosecution.

Increased use of technology has led to several offences that didn’t previously exist. These include gambling on the internet, which is a felony in some states. If you do business inCalifornia, it’s an offense to not report to a customer based there if you access any of their data that isn’t encrypted. Some states have ‘cyberstalking’ laws that impose different levels of restriction. Obscene language is generally banned while certain behavior might be classed as intimidating or an attempt to bully. The general rule is to be careful what you say and check your emails before you send them.

Most legislation is aimed at genuine wrong-doers and so, if you act in a responsible manner, you’ll have no problems. However, the easy availability that technology brings makes it possible to commit a crime without realizing you’re doing it. So, it’s best to be aware of what you can and can’t do.