After Hours

10 ways you might be breaking the law with your computer: UPDATED

Legislation that affects the use of Internet-connected computers continues to grow in its reach and its complexity. To help you avoid any infractions, we've revised this list to include new and pending laws and recent rulings.

For many years, the Internet was the "final frontier," operating largely unregulated -- in part because of the jurisdictional nightmare involved in trying to enforce laws when communications crossed not just state lines but also national boundaries. That was then; this is now. Legislation that affects the use of Internet-connected computers is springing up everywhere at the local, state and federal levels. You might be violating one of them without even knowing.

In this article, we'll take a look at some of the existing laws and some of the pending legislation that can influence how we use our computers and the Internet. Nothing in this article should be construed as legal advice; this is merely an overview of some of the legislation that's out there, how it has been interpreted by the courts (if applicable), and possible implications for computer users.

Note: This article is also available as a PDF download.

1: Digital Millennium Copyright (DMCA) Act

Most computer users have heard of this law, signed in 1998 by President Clinton, implementing two World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) treaties. The DMCA makes it a criminal offense to circumvent any kind of technological copy protection -- even if you don't violate anyone's copyright in doing so. In other words, simply disabling the copy protection is a federal crime.

There are some exemptions, such as circumventing copy protection of programs that are in an obsolete format for the purpose of archiving or preservation. But in most cases, using any sort of anti-DRM program is illegal. This applies to all sorts of copy-protected files, including music, movies, and software. You can read a summary of the DMCA here.

If you're a techie who likes the challenge of trying to "crack" DRM, be aware that doing so -- even if you don't make or distribute illegal copies of the copyrighted material -- is against the law.

2: No Electronic Theft (NET) Act

This is another U.S. federal law that was passed during the Clinton administration. Prior to this act, copyright violations were generally treated as civil matters and could not be prosecuted criminally unless it was done for commercial purposes. The NET Act made copyright infringement itself a federal criminal offense, regardless of whether you circumvent copy-protection technology and whether you derive any commercial benefit or monetary gain. Thus, just making a copy of a copyrighted work for a friend now makes you subject to up to five years in prison and/or up to $250,000 in fines. This is the law referred to in the familiar "FBI Warning" that appears at the beginning of most DVD movies. You can read more about the NET Act here.

Many people who consider themselves upstanding citizens and who would never post music and movies to a P2P site think nothing of burning a copy of a song or TV show for a friend. Unfortunately, by the letter of the law, the latter is just as illegal as the former.

3: Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA)

This treaty is still in negotiation between the United States, European Commission, Switzerland, Japan, Australia, Canada, Jordan, Mexico, Morocco, New Zealand, the Republic of Korea, Singapore, and the United Arab Emirates. The most recent round of negotiations took place in Mexico in January 2010, and the next is scheduled for April 2010 in New Zealand.

As with the DMCA, many regard the ACTA as a workaround for governments to impose regulations and penalties through international treaties that they would not be able to pass into law through their regular legislative processes. ACTA covers a number of areas, including counterfeit products and generic medicines, but the part that affects computer users is the chapter titled "Enforcement of Intellectual Property Rights."

Although the treaty negotiations are conducted in secret, a leaked document indicated that one provision in the treaty would force ISPs to give information about customers suspected of copyright infringement without requiring a warrant. According to reports, another provision would allow customs agents to conduct random searches of laptops, MP3 players, and cell phones for illegally downloaded or ripped music and movies. Not surprisingly, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) is a supporter of the treaty. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) opposes it, as does the Free Software Foundation. You can read the EFF's stance on ACTA here.

4: Court rulings regarding border searches

Most Americans are aware of the protections afforded by the U.S. Constitution's fourth amendment against unreasonable searches and seizures. In general, this means that the government cannot search your person, home, vehicle, or computer without probable cause to believe that you've engaged in some criminal act.

What many don't know is that there are quite a few circumstances that the Courts, over the years, have deemed to be exempt from this requirement. One of those occurs when you enter the United States at the border. In April 2008, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the right of Customs officers to search laptops and other digital devices at the border (the definition of which extends to any international airport when you are coming into the country) without probable cause or even the lesser standard of reasonable suspicion. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and other groups strongly disagree with the ruling. You can read more on the EFF Web site.

Meanwhile, be aware that even though you've done nothing illegal and are not even suspected of such, the entire contents of your portable computer, PDA, or smart phone can be accessed by government agents when you enter the Unites States. So if you have anything on your hard drive that could be embarrassing, you might want to delete it before crossing the border.

5: State and federal laws regarding access to networks

Many states have criminal laws that prohibit accessing any computer or network without the owner's permission. For example, in Texas, the statute is Penal Code section 33.02, Breach of Computer Security. It says, "A person commits an offense if the person knowingly accesses a computer, computer network or computer system without the effective consent of the owner." The penalty grade ranges from misdemeanor to first degree felony (which is the same grade as murder), depending on whether the person obtains benefit, harms or defrauds someone, or alters, damages, or deletes files.

The wording of most such laws encompass connecting to a wireless network without explicit permission, even if the Wi-Fi network is unsecured. The inclusion of the culpable mental state of "knowing" as an element of the offense means that if your computer automatically connects to your neighbor's wireless network instead of your own and you aren't aware of it, you haven't committed a crime. But if you decide to hop onto the nearest unencrypted Wi-Fi network to surf the Internet, knowing full well that it doesn't belong to you and no one has given you permission, you could be prosecuted under these laws.

A Michigan man was arrested for using a café's Wi-Fi network (which was reserved for customers) from his car in 2007. Similar arrests have been made in Florida, Illinois, Washington, and Alaska.

The federal law that covers unauthorized access is Title 18 U.S.C. Section 1030, which prohibits intentionally accessing a computer without authorization or exceeding authorized access. But it applies to "protected computers," which are defined as those used by the U.S. government, by a financial institution, or used in or affecting interstate or foreign commerce. In addition to fines and imprisonment, penalties include forfeiture of any personal property used to commit the crime or derived from proceeds traceable to any violation. You can read the text of that section here.

In a recent case regarding unauthorized access, a high profile lawsuit was filed against a school district in Pennsylvania by students who alleged that district personnel activated their school-issued laptops in their homes and spied on them with the laptops' webcams. The FBI is investigating to determine whether any criminal laws were broken. Because the school district owned the computers, there is controversy over whether they had the right to remotely access them without the permission of the users.

6: "Tools of a crime" laws

Some states have laws that make it a crime to possess a "criminal instrument" or the "tool of a crime." Depending on the wording of the law, this can be construed to mean any device that is designed or adapted for use in the commission of an offense. This means you could be arrested and prosecuted, for example, for constructing a high gain wireless antenna for the purpose of tapping into someone else's Wi-Fi network, even if you never did in fact access a network. Several years ago, a California sheriff's deputy made the news when he declared Pringles can antennas illegal under such a statute.

7: Cyberstalking and Cyberbullying laws

Stalking is a serious crime and certainly all of us are in favor of laws that punish stalkers. As Internet connectivity has become ubiquitous, legislatures have recognized that it's possible to stalk someone from afar using modern technology. Some of the "cyberstalking" laws enacted by the states, however, contain some pretty broad language.

For example, the Arkansas law contains a section titled "Unlawful computerized communications" that makes it a crime to send a message via email or other computerized communication system (Instant Messenger, Web chat, IRC, etc.) that uses obscene, lewd, or profane language, with the intent to frighten, intimidate, threaten, abuse, or harass another person. Some of the lively discussions on mailing lists and Web boards that deteriorate into flame wars could easily fall under that definition. Or how about the furious email letter you sent to the company that refused to refund your money for the shoddy product you bought?

Closely related are the laws against cyberbullying. Such laws have been passed by some states and local governments. In April 2009, the Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act (H.R. 1966) was introduced in the U.S. Congress. The act would make it a federal crime to "intimidate, harass, or cause substantial emotional distress to another person, using electronic means to support severe, repeated and hostile behavior." Subcommittee hearings have been held and the bill is continuing through the legislative process.

Opponents of the proposed law point out that the language is open to interpretation, and could be construed to apply to someone who merely gets into heated discussions on a web board or email list. The best policy is to watch your language when sending any type of electronic communications. Not only can a loss of temper when you're online come back to embarrass you, it could even get you thrown in jail.

8: Internet gambling laws

Like to play poker online or bet on the horse races from the comfort of your home? The federal Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006 criminalizes acceptance of funds from bettors -- but what about the bettors themselves? Are they committing a crime?

Under this federal law, the answer is no, but some state laws do apply to the person placing the bet. For example, a Washington law passed in 2006 makes gambling on the Internet a felony. The King County Superior Court just recently upheld that law, although challengers have vowed to take it to the Supreme Court. Be sure to check out the state and local laws before you make that friendly online bet.

9: Child pornography laws

We all want to protect children and keep pedophiles away from them, but could you be arrested for possession of child pornography or for exposing children to pornography even though you would never voluntarily indulge in such a thing? Unfortunately, as the laws are written and enforced, the answer is "yes." In January 2007, a substitute teacher in Norwich, CT, was convicted of four felony pornography charges, although she claimed the offending pictures were the result of pop-ups and that she did not knowingly access the Web sites in question. The conviction was set aside after forensics and security experts examined her hard drive and found the school's antivirus software was out of date and the computer had no anti-spyware, firewall, or pop-up blocking technology. The teacher ended up pleading guilty to a misdemeanor charge.

Pornographic images of children are illegal to possess. This includes not just photographs of actual children, but also computer-generated pictures and drawings in which no real people are involved and photos of models who are of adult age but look like children. There are many ways such images can get on a computer. Viruses can infect your system and allow another person to remotely access your hard drive. Your computer can be taken over to become a bot, controlled by someone else without your knowledge. Someone can email you an illegal image. You can click a link on a non-pornographic Web site that takes you to a site where the illegal images are displayed, and they're then downloaded into your Web cache on your hard drive.

In another 2007 case, a 16-year-old was charged with possession of child pornography and got 18 months probation and over a quarter of a million dollars in legal fees, even though he passed polygraph tests in which he denied knowledge of the images and an examination of the hard drive found more than 200 infected files and no firewall.

10: Pro IP Act

Returning to the copyright front, the Prioritizing Resources and Organization for Intellectual Property Act (Pro IP Act), which was signed into law in 2008, imposes stricter penalties for copyright infringement. It created a new position of "copyright enforcement czar" (formally called the Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator) in the federal bureaucracy and gives law enforcement agents the right to seize property from copyright infringers.

This may all sound fine in theory, but when you look at the way other seizure and forfeiture laws have been applied (for instance, the ability of drug enforcement officers to seize houses, computers, cars, cash, and just about everything else that belongs to someone tagged as a suspected drug dealer -- and in some cases, not returning the property even when the person is acquitted or not prosecuted), it makes many people wary. Read more about the bill here.

Some local jurisdictions have also established seizure authority for piracy. In September 2009, Victoria Espinel was appointed as the first copyright czar. She has asked for public input by March 24, 2010.


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About

Debra Littlejohn Shinder, MCSE, MVP is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. Deb is a tech editor, developmental editor, and contributor to over 20 add...

259 comments
CeBeTech
CeBeTech

Using a computer, possessing data, etc. should NEVER be crimes.

It should only be a crime to commit an ACTUAL crime and use a computer or anything else to do it.

Crime = causing harm, in general terms, though every type of harm is not a crime, nor should it be.

Many types of harm are civil matters, some are simply moral or religious matters.

VeeH
VeeH

What is happening in this world.

Vee595
Vee595

Wow this is crazy. Especially #9!!

Yookreels
Yookreels

I accidentally entered in the wrong username in the twitter forgot password username section. I thought i was on an different site. Is that considered illegal?

56Wrecker
56Wrecker

SOME of this "information" is purely speculative....and would NOT "hold-up" in Court. Granted...it is usually BEST to avoid "potential" trouble. But this article seems to me to be engaged in "Fear-Mongering" which is NOT BENEFICIAL or Informative to the reader. My 2 pesos worth.

adam
adam

Judging by all the comments posted on this subject and the content therein, maybe the title should read "10 ways you might be breaking the law by breathing." I don't think the author meant to uncap such a large can of worms as he was pointing out all the of the "illegal" things everyday people do with their computers without giving it a second thought. That is not to say that I don't agree with most of the comments made. The truth of the matter is that the computer and the Internet in general have damaged small businesses to a point where they may never recover, not to mention the civilized world as a whole. If enough people realized this fact alone, it may become illegal to own a computer.

Artty Sie
Artty Sie

Google cryptainer, it allows you to store all your sensitive data in one single secure encrypted file, which you can give any name you want (myvacation.mpeg). Even if this file would somehow be scrutinized, thanks to the Fifth Amendment, they cannot force you to disclose the password. There are many similar softwares but choose one that is based outside of the US, to avoid any backdoor provisions the FBI might have imposed.

cgaston6
cgaston6

Then, according to some of these laws, all MP3 players and their content are also "illegal"!! RIGHT??

chassman2
chassman2

I HAVE A COMPUTER... THERFORE I HAVE THE TOOLS.... I THINK, THEREFORE IT CAN BE CLAIMED I HAVE INTENT... GUILTY! TAKE ME AWAY....

leo8888
leo8888

Remember the old days when so many people had boom boxes with cassette decks? I used to record all my favorite songs from the radio, make mix tapes and share them with friends. I guess under today's laws I would be serving time right now...

KarrasB
KarrasB

If you're rich you're innocent, if you're poor you're guilty. Very few exceptions.

rroberto18
rroberto18

...when you ripped it from your own cds or bought it without drm as sold legally by many online services? do you go into court with jewel boxes and receipts? the riaa has driven away cd-buyers....figures don't lie they have also killed the 'album' as a result since the 'single' or track is the format of choice (just like it was prior to the late 50s)... and now they want radio to pay for playing music? are the labels trying to get back the payola they paid in the past to get airplay? the music biz could have benefited from the net but they were too busy suing their customers

kaspencer
kaspencer

Just a little too USA centred for me. Just as "Oranges are not the Only Fruit", the USA is not the only country.

vucliriel
vucliriel

One of the reasons I am happy to live outside of the US (to I think I even considered moving there until 9-11!) Look at what is happening in the US and its cronies today, and you can find all the parallels in Fascist Europe of the 1930s. The only difference is this police state won't be killing you summarily, it will just lock you up in an overcrowded prison system. I personally don't let these dictatorial laws bully me into fear and submission. I certainly will continue to use my computer the way I see fit. Those laws are even worse that the evil they are supposed to be protecting us from, and are just another pretext to enrich lawyers and large corporations for useless content and services that have absolutely no benefit for people and are simply aimed at milking consumers and keeping them in line with the governing orthodoxy. If these laws were actually to be applied, most users would be found guilty of breaking at least one of them and would at least suffer legal extortion if not outright sent to prison. Heck, the US has the largest prison system in the world. A few million new inmates shouldn't be a problem.

karenc
karenc

"Some states have laws that make it a crime to possess a ?criminal instrument? or the ?tool of a crime.? " so basically any halfway decent sysadmin, or tech support bod is well and truly stuffed as quite a lot of the tools they use can be used to break into computer systems, reset passwords, look at network data and scavenge data from systems all of which can be subverted for illicit purposes possession of the tools and knowledge of how to use them do not imply intent to commit a crime

ihdaniels
ihdaniels

The Patriot Act is a potent and dangerous cocktail for the abuse of power, these laws are the "straw" that's used to mix it. Any who are unaware of these laws or who have flunked the Bar, can find themselves in a whole lot of trouble to say the least.

Al_nyc
Al_nyc

Just goes to show how stupid some of our law makers are. Many will laugh at these laws up to the point where law enforcement uses one of them against you. Just read the 10th item where it mentions the seizure and forfeiture law. Focus on the part where it says that even after you are found not guilty of what you are suspected of doing wrong, you may not get your property back. This is routinely abused by police departments who get to keep the seized property. So they have lots of reasons to seize your property and say it is because they suspect you are a drug dealer.

bblackmoor
bblackmoor

This article should be titled "10 reasons current copyright laws need to be abolished".

jmay
jmay

Any chance of a UK version

w7fxh
w7fxh

Welcome to the communist states of America lead by Comrade Obama. Sure wish we still had the Constitution.

wizard57m-cnet
wizard57m-cnet

so you should keep that in mind when you judge one being "NOT BENEFICIAL".

JCitizen
JCitizen

such an unconstitutional law. When are you guys going to leave Disney World behind?

JCitizen
JCitizen

solutions that do the same thing as Google's utility, and that one may be open source also. However, after seeing legal experts here on TR, point out Google's EULA for many of their services, and some snide comments by the former CEO, I can't trust Google with my information. Regular FOSS solutions are scrutinized by many coders across the world, and no one would get away with a back door on that issue.

tehpea
tehpea

Unless you bought the music at the iTunes Store or any other online store, yes.

vucliriel
vucliriel

... The Justice System is a big game of poker... The one who can bet most always bullies his opponent into folding even if they have better cards...

Alpha_Dog
Alpha_Dog

...why is it necessary to prove innocence in America?

johnbrandy
johnbrandy

If, based and established upon solid evidence, an individual is clearly and unequivocally a victim of circumstances; harboring no ill intent, how can they be prosecuted? Is not intent a defining element in established law, thus mitigating and extenuating the unintended consequences resulting from the intrusion of unsolicited material? As well, is there not a judicial review mechanism in place to question overzealous prosecutors from indicting said victims? Please share, anyone, websites that address such issues. It is a sad fact that to often laws do not protect the innocent, but ostensibly and effectively function to encourage the false and invalid motives of thous allegedly empowered to honorably and fairly execute such.

l_creech
l_creech

And thus we have talk radio, where the shock jocks and whoever else get paid by sponsors, and the sponsors go to where the listeners are. There are only a couple of radio stations left in the Seattle area that play music I want to listen too, but even they are so full of talk and commercials that I no longer listen to radio even in my vehicles. I just plug my MP3 player in and listen to what I choose instead.

viper777
viper777

I don't live in America but am aware how controlling and Nazi like the laws have become. It almost sounds like one bad look or be inappropriately tagged as something gets ya in deep trouble. Sounds like Nazi Germany to me!!! America shouldn't worry about having death camps, just put one big fence around the country, wholla!!!

chas_2
chas_2

I never understood how Canada is as Western as the U.S. but without the Orwellian approaches to business and government.

MWRadio
MWRadio

Yep. You got it! I have password reset tools so I can get into systems that people or thier kids lock them selves out of. Data recovery tools that could be used to retrieve information deleted. CMOS reset tools, etc. And I am therefore at the mercy of any @$$ with a badge who decides to prosecute for having "tools of crime". Believe it or not this is not new. If you carry a lock out tool or even an unfolded coat hanger in your car you can be prosecuted. Usually they don't come after tow truck drivers in thier trucks for this, but it COULD be prosecuted. And there is the sad thing about all of these laws, they are subject to, and too often are, put to arbitrary and inconsistent use at the "descretion" of one or two over zealous officials. Under these laws, if I go to a customer's house carrying my laptop with a wifi card, to hook to thier system if needed, and my usual tool kit, a simple traffic stop for failure to signal while the stuff is sitting in view on the seat or car floor, could be enough to start a chain of events where they end up going to my house and taking everything I have including my customers units I have to repair, under guise of "probable cause", using these loose definitions. Then under current civil forfeiture laws they could easily keep it all even if all charges are dropped! I hate people who start yelling, "There ought to be a law!" Becase there usually already is one that could be used to stop a crime, but they get a new set made anyway, that are completely exploitable in this manner.

Al_nyc
Al_nyc

not copyright laws, just stupid laws. Too many of them on the books. To many of them are easily abused.

l_creech
l_creech

As to our Constitution, I believe that was offered up to Iraq as we haven't used it correctly in many decades. They apparently didn't want it either as it was to restrictive to politicians.

owner
owner

Yet another moron who doesn't know what Communist really means beyond what Rush Limbaugh and Glen Beck told him to believe it means. You should be ashamed of yourself.

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

and you still have a legal copy on the original media. Which means, I can make a tape copy of my old record and play the tape instead of the record - legal here.

neilb
neilb

Maybe you need to check women out a little more closely. :|

Mauri
Mauri

So if a locksmith, who is licensed to repair locks, has lockpics in his toolset, is he breaking the law? So if a Sysadmin or support specialist, certified (or not, just employed or as a consultant to do so) posseses the software tools to acess password protected data or otherwise retrive data from your network in an ethical way that both the employer and or client agree to, is he breaking the law? The tools to do any task can be used for good or evil. It is the motivation, the access and the intent that convicts.

BaruchAtta
BaruchAtta

I have been getting free music for years and years. They broadcast it free on the radio. Wow. Free music.

vucliriel
vucliriel

In case you didn't know, it's become harder for neighbours to see each other (Canadians visiting their American Cousins, or, in my case, the in-laws) that it is for former enemies to do so in Europe (where you can travel freely from one country to the next)...

tracy.walters
tracy.walters

...and I don't listen to any of the people you mentioned...nor do I listen to the left wing lunatics.

JCitizen
JCitizen

They use them as the master and record to digital, or maybe even tape! That is how my brother preserved his LP album collection. Most of his 33rpm LPs have only been played once, and that was to get it to his AKAI reel to reel. He's had that thing forever! Crap! I need to remind him to degauss that head, if he hasn't already! Oh!Well! After all he can always remaster!

neilb
neilb

Well, for your ideas of humour, anyway. OK, I'm done. I long set limits to how many times I can be bothered to get involved in interminable pointless threads with you. Feel free to have the last post if you really need to.

neilb
neilb

At least, not recognisably so. And Night Patrol is still shite.

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

to think about it first. In this case, think about a law that says you're guilty of a crime just because you have the tools to commit the crime. Any handyman has the tools to commit a burglary. In most countries where they have laws about carry tools for a crime, there are three parts - 1. having the tools in your possession away from your own residence or business, 2. being at and about with them at a time when crimes these tools are used in generally happen, 3. not being able to provide a suitable, and supported, reason for having them there when the police find you. So a person with locksmith tools in a warehouse district at one in the morning is suspect, but when he provides evidence of a client call out to a warehouse and the client can support it, they let him go.

neilb
neilb

it isn't funny and, whatever you post, it won't be funny. You don't do funny. Neither was Night Patrol funny. I give up.

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

had to keep it running - otherwise it wouldn't be so funny. The fact I can do it with truth, too, makes it even funnier. There's a funny film called Night Patrol, made in Canada (I think) which has a cute scene where the male victim of rape by some militant lesbians is found by two cops on patrol. The best scene from that film is where they later get involved in a shoot out and call for a back up - a new patrol car drives into the scene - backwards, two cops get out, and run backwards to where they are -- I love that movie, it's full of odd little jokes like that.

neilb
neilb

I bet that you would answer my flippant one liner with yet another pedantic, plodding, irrelevant justification. It's a bet I really, really hoped to lose. Please, Ernest, learn when to let it go.

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

- the usually tie them down and go for a ride, choice of weapons with the female. Also, castrated men have been known to rape men in such a manner as well. Yes, it's rare, but it's happened, AND everyone has the equipment to do one of them.

Alpha_Dog
Alpha_Dog

...who may have special dispensation to have a password recovery tool? For that matter, the XP install disk may be used as such...

Cerebral*Origami
Cerebral*Origami

It is illegal for the average citizen to own lockpicks but locksmiths are specifically mentioned as an exception.