If you are computer savvy, you may have people asking you for help all the time. Maybe your co-workers know they can come to you for help with a program, or your friends contact you when they can’t figure out how to fix a glitch they have encountered. If you love the world of computers, you may thrive on these challenges. However, your skills may work against you if authorities are investigating you for suspicion of hacking.
Hacking is a broad term that covers a wide range of actions, some of which are criminal and others that are not. Numerous hacking laws exist to protect individuals, businesses and even the federal government from those who would break into their computer systems. Violating those laws may lead to severe penalties.
Criminal and civil consequences
In some cases, hackers have permission to break into a computer or system. If you are working with law enforcement or have a court order to access someone else’s data, you may not be committing a crime. However, under the various laws on the books, doing any of the following without authorization may lead to criminal charges:
- Collecting and selling passwords
- Knowingly sending transmissions that could damage someone’s computer or system
- Destroying data on someone’s computer or system
- Installing ransomware that locks a computer’s capabilities until the owner pays a ransom
- Accessing a computer or system to obtain unauthorized information
- Using hacking skills to commit fraud to obtain something of value
- Obtaining government information protected by national security laws
Because several of the federal hacking laws have overlapping prohibitions, it is possible that your arrest for one crime may lead to additional charges. For example, the Stored Communications Act prohibits the unauthorized access of data, like emails and social media accounts. However, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act addresses similar violations. Additionally, California and other states have their own criminal codes that may also apply to your situation.
A conviction for many hacking crimes can lead to up to 10 years for a first offense and twice as long if convicted a second time. In some cases, the alleged victims of hacking can also seek recompense through the civil courts. This may include financial damages as well as the confiscation of your property and any devices authorities believe you used to commit the offense. These consequences may occur in addition to any criminal penalties for a conviction.