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Cybercrime's Scope: Interpreting 'Access' and 'Authorization' in Computer Misuse Statutes


Orin S. Kerr


George Washington University - Law School


NYU Law Review, Vol. 78, No. 5, pp. 1596-1668, November 2003

Abstract:     
In the last twenty-five years, the federal government and all fifty states have enacted new criminal laws that prohibit unauthorized access to computers. These new laws attempt to draw a line between criminality and free conduct in cyberspace. No one knows what it means to access a computer, however, nor when access becomes unauthorized. The few courts that have construed these terms have offered divergent interpretations, and no scholars have yet addressed the problem. Recent decisions interpreting the federal statute in civil cases suggest that any breach of contract with a computer owner renders use of that computer an unauthorized access. If applied to criminal cases, this approach would broadly criminalize contract law on the Internet, potentially making millions of Americans criminals for the way they write e-mail and surf the Web.

This Article presents a comprehensive inquiry into the meaning of unauthorized access statutes. It begins by explaining why legislatures enacted unauthorized access statutes, and why early beliefs that such statutes solved the problem of computer misuse have proved remarkably naïve. Next, the Article explains how the courts have construed these statutes in an overly broad way that threatens to criminalize a surprising range of innocuous conduct involving computers. In the final section, the Article offers a normative proposal for interpreting access and authorization. This section argues that courts should reject a contract theory of authorization, and should narrow the scope of unauthorized access statutes to circumvention of code-based restrictions on computer privileges. The section justifies this proposal on several grounds. First, the proposal will best mediate the line between securing privacy and protecting the liberty of Internet users. Second, the proposal mirrors criminal law's traditional treatment of crimes that contain a consent element. Third, the proposed approach is consistent with the basic theories of punishment. Fourth, the proposed interpretation avoids possible constitutional difficulties that may arise under the broader constructions that courts recently have favored.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 74

Keywords: cybercrime, computer crime, unauthorized access, code

JEL Classification: K14, K42

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Date posted: February 18, 2004  

Suggested Citation

Kerr, Orin S., Cybercrime's Scope: Interpreting 'Access' and 'Authorization' in Computer Misuse Statutes. NYU Law Review, Vol. 78, No. 5, pp. 1596-1668, November 2003. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=399740

Contact Information

Orin S. Kerr (Contact Author)
George Washington University - Law School ( email )
2000 H Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20052
United States
202-994-4775 (Phone)
202-994-9817 (Fax)
HOME PAGE: http://www.law.gwu.edu/faculty/profile.asp?ID=3568
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