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Chapter: Security in Computing : Legal and Ethical Issues in Computer Security

Examples of Statutes

As a few examples from the 1980s have pointed out, in the early days, prosecution of computer crimes was hampered by lack of clear appreciation of the nature or seriousness of crime involving computers.

Examples of Statutes


As a few examples from the 1980s have pointed out, in the early days, prosecution of computer crimes was hampered by lack of clear appreciation of the nature or seriousness of crime involving computers. Although theft, harm to persons, and damage to property have been crimes for a long time, in some cases new laws were useful to make it obvious to the courts what computer-related behavior was unacceptable. Most states now have laws covering computer crime of one sort or another. Also, computer-related crimes now appear in sentencing guidelines.


In this section we highlight a few of the laws defining aspects of crime against or using computers.


U.S. Computer Fraud and Abuse Act


The primary federal statute, 18 USC 1030, was enacted in 1984 and has been amended several times since. This statute prohibits


unauthorized access to a computer containing data protected for national defense or foreign relations concerns


unauthorized access to a computer containing certain banking or financial information


unauthorized access, use, modification, destruction, or disclosure of a computer or information in a computer operated on behalf of the U.S. government


accessing without permission a "protected computer," which the courts now interpret to include any computer connected to the Internet


computer fraud


transmitting code that causes damage to a computer system or network


trafficking in computer passwords


Penalties range from $5,000 to $100,000 or twice the value obtained by the offense, whichever is higher, or imprisonment from 1 year to 20 years, or both.


U.S. Economic Espionage Act


This 1996 act outlaws use of a computer for foreign espionage to benefit a foreign country or business or theft of trade secrets.


U.S. Electronic Funds Transfer Act


This law prohibits use, transport, sale, receipt, or supply of counterfeit, stolen, altered, lost, or fraudulently obtained debit instruments in interstate or foreign commerce.


U.S. Freedom of Information Act


The Freedom of Information Act provides public access to information collected by the executive branch of the federal government. The act requires disclosure of any available data, unless the data fall under one of several specific exceptions, such as national security or personal privacy. The law's original intent was to release to individuals any information the government had collected on them. However, more corporations than individuals file requests for information as a means of obtaining information about the workings of the government. Even foreign governments can file for information. This act applies only to government agencies, although similar laws could require disclosure from private sources. The law's effect is to require increased classification and protection for sensitive information.


U.S. Privacy Act


The Privacy Act of 1974 protects the privacy of personal data collected by the government. An individual is allowed to determine what data have been collected on him or her, for what purpose, and to whom such information has been disseminated. An additional use of the law is to prevent one government agency from accessing data collected by another agency for another purpose. This act requires diligent efforts to preserve the secrecy of private data collected.


U.S. Electronic Communications Privacy Act


This law, enacted in 1986, protects against electronic wiretapping. There are some important qualifications. First, law enforcement agencies are always allowed to obtain a court order to access communications or records of them. And an amendment to the act requires Internet service providers to install equipment as needed to permit these court -ordered wiretaps. Second, the act allows Internet service providers to read the content of communications in order to maintain service or to protect the provider itself from damage. So, for example, a provider could monitor traffic for viruses.




The U.S. GrammLeachBliley Act (Public Law 106-102) of 1999 covers privacy of data for customers of financial institutions. Each institution must have a privacy policy of which it informs its customers, and customers must be given the opportunity to reject any use of the data beyond the necessary business uses for which the private data were collected. The act and its implementation regulations also require financial institutions to undergo a detailed security-risk assessment. Based on the results of that assessment, the institution must adopt a comprehensive "information security program" designed to protect against unauthorized access to or use of customers' nonpublic personal information.




In 1996, Public Law 104-191, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) was passed in the United States. Although the first part of the law concerned the rights of workers to maintain health insurance coverage after their employment was terminated, the second part of the law required protection of the privacy of individuals' medical records. HIPAA and its associated implementation standards mandate protection of "individually identifiable healthcare information," that is, medical data that can be associated with an identifiable individual. To protect the privacy of individuals' healthcare data, healthcare providers must perform standard security practices, such as the following:


Enforce need to know.


Ensure minimum necessary disclosure.


Designate a privacy officer.


Document information security practices.


Track disclosures of information.


Develop a method for patients' inspection and copying of their information.


Train staff at least every three years.


Perhaps most far-reaching is the requirement for healthcare organizations to develop "business associate contracts," which are coordinated agreements on how data shared among entities will be protected. This requirement could affect the sharing and transmittal of patient information among doctors, clinics, laboratories, hospitals, insurers, and any other organizations that handle such data.


USA Patriot Act


Passed in 2001 in reaction to terrorist attacks in the United States, the USA Patriot Act includes a number of provisions supporting law enforcement's access to electronic communications. Under this act, law enforcement need only convince a court that a target is probably an agent of a foreign power in order to obtain a wiretap order. The main computer security provision of the Patriot Act is an amendment to the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act:


Knowingly causing the transmission of code resulting in damage to a protected computer is a felony.


Recklessly causing damage to a computer system as a consequence of unauthorized access is also a felony.


Causing damage (even unintentionally) as a consequence of unauthorized access to a protected computer is a misdemeanor.




Unsolicited "junk" e-mail or spam is certainly a problem. Analysts estimate that as much as 70 percent of all e-mail traffic is spam.


To address pressure from their constituents, in 2003 U.S. lawmakers passed the Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing (CAN SPAM) Act. (One wonders how many staff members it took to find a sequence of words to yield that acronym.) Key requirements of the law are these:


It bans false or misleading header information.


It prohibits deceptive subject lines.


It requires commercial e-mail to give recipients an opt-out method.


It bans sale or transfer of e-mail addresses of people who have opted out.


It requires that commercial e-mail be identified as an advertisement.


Critics of the law point out that it preempts state laws, and some states had stronger laws. It also can be read as permitting commercial e-mail as long as the mail is not deceptive. Finally, and most importantly, it does little to regulate spam that comes from offshore: a spam sender simply sends spam from a foreign mailer, perhaps in a country more interested in generating business for its national ISPs than in controlling worldwide junk e-mail. The most telling result: The volume of spam has not declined since the law.


California Breach Notification


The first state in the U.S. to enact such a law, California passed SB1386, effective in 2003. This law requires any company doing business in California or any California government agency to notify individuals of any breach that has, or is reasonably believed to have, compromised personal information on any California resident. As a state law, it is limited to California residents and California companies. At least 20 other states have since followed with some form of breach notification.


The most widely reported application of the law was in February 2005 when Choicepoint disclosed that some California residents had been affected by loss of 145,000 pieces of personal identity information. Initially only affected California residents were informed, but after news of that disclosure was made public, Choicepoint revealed how many people total were involved and began notifying them.


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