The Hustle

The future of online security and privacy is being decided right now

A case concerning the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) could give Big Tech even more power.


December 2, 2020

On Monday, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments for a case with wide-ranging implications for how the digital sphere will be policed.

Here’s what you need to know, per Protocol:

The case: Van Buren v. United States 

What happened? In 2017, former Georgia police officer Nathan Van Buren “accepted money to look up a woman’s license plate in a law enforcement database.”

What law was broken? Van Buren was convicted of violating the 1986 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), specifically a vague clause that says accessing a computer “without authorization or exceeding authorized access” is a crime.

What’s the defense saying? Van Buren clearly did something wrong, but because of how vague the standard is, he’s arguing that he had “authorized access” to the database but used that access for “unauthorized” purposes.

OK, how does this affect me? Odds are you’ve done something that could be considered “unauthorized” under an expanded CFAA standard: 1) using a work computer to look up the value of a Lebron James rookie card (guilty); 2) not abiding by a tech firm’s terms of service (e.g., creating a fake account).

Who wants Van Buren to lose? If CFAA is expanded, Big Tech firms can use TOS violations as a way to enforce whatever rules they want.

What wants Van Buren to win? Online privacy groups (e.g., Electronic Frontier Foundation) don’t want Big Tech to be able to expand their powers. Further, journalists and researchers, who often set up fake profiles to study Big Tech, are concerned about facing legal liability.

So far — according to Law and Crime — the Supreme Court seems to be leaning with Van Buren. Justice Samuel Alito noted that expansion of CFAA “would criminalize all sorts of activity that people would find innocuous.”

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