Court takes CFAA interpretation case

From the Blog


Justices add computer fraud case to merits docket

This morning the Supreme Court issued orders from the justices’ private conference last week. The justices added one new case to their merits docket for next term, a case involving the interpretation of federal computer fraud laws.

In Van Buren v. United States, the justices agreed to decide whether it is a federal crime for someone with permission to access information on a computer to access that information for an improper purpose. The question comes to the court in a petition filed by Nathan Van Buren, a Georgia police officer who became the subject of an FBI sting operation after he asked a man named Andrew Albo (who had previously accused prostitutes of stealing money from him) for a loan.

At the FBI’s instruction, Albo asked Van Buren to run a computer search for a license plate number that supposedly belonged to a local exotic dancer. According to the story concocted by the FBI, Albo liked the dancer, but wanted to make sure that she wasn’t an undercover police officer. Van Buren agreed to do the search for Albo; Albo then gave him $6,000 in total.

Van Buren was charged with violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which makes it a federal crime to either access a computer without authorization or to exceed that user’s authorized access and obtain information. Van Buren was convicted and sentenced to 18 months in prison. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit upheld Van Buren’s conviction, rejecting his argument that he could not have violated the CFAA because he had permission to access the databases.

Citing a division among the courts of appeals on the question presented by his case, Van Buren then went to the Supreme Court. He argued that if the lower court is correct, than any “trivial breach” of the conditions imposed by, for example, employers or the terms of service for a website – “from checking sports scores at work to inflating one’s height on a dating website” – would be a federal crime. Today the justices agreed to weigh in.