The Supreme Court’s Van Buren decision today overturned a dangerous precedent and clarified the notoriously ambiguous meaning of “exceeding authorized access” in the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, the federal computer crime law that’s been misused to prosecute beneficial and important online activity.
The decision is a victory for all Internet users, as it affirmed that online services cannot use the CFAA’s criminal provisions to enforce limitations on how or why you use their service, including for purposes such as collecting evidence of discrimination or identifying security vulnerabilities. It also rejected the use of troubling physical-world analogies and legal theories to interpret the law, which in the past have resulted in some of its most dangerous abuses.
The Van Buren decision is especially good news for security researchers, whose work discovering security vulnerabilities is vital to the public interest but often requires accessing computers in ways that contravene terms of service. Under the Department of Justice’s reading of the law, the CFAA allowed criminal charges against individuals for any website terms of service violation. But a majority of the Supreme Court rejected the DOJ’s interpretation. And although the high court did not narrow the CFAA as much as EFF would have liked, leaving open the question of whether the law requires circumvention of a technological access barrier, it provided good language that should help protect researchers, investigative journalists, and others.
The CFAA makes it a crime to “intentionally access a computer without authorization or exceed authorized access, and thereby obtain . . . information from any protected computer,” but does not define what authorization means for purposes of exceeding authorized access. In Van Buren, a former Georgia police officer was accused of taking money in exchange for looking up a license plate in a law enforcement database. This was a database he was otherwise entitled to access, and Van Buren was charged with exceeding authorized access under the CFAA. The Eleventh Circuit analysis had turned on the computer owner’s unilateral policies regarding use of its networks, allowing private parties to make EULA, TOS, or other use policies criminally enforceable.
The Supreme Court rightly overturned the Eleventh Circuit, and held that exceeding authorized access under the CFAA does not encompass “violations of circumstance-based access restrictions on employers’ computers.” Rather, the statute’s prohibition is limited to someone who “accesses a computer with authorization but then obtains information located in particular areas of the computer—such as files, folders, or databases—that are off limits to him.” The Court adopted a “gates-up-or-down” approach: either you are entitled to access the information or you are not. If you need to break through a digital gate to get in, entry is a crime, but if you are allowed through an open gateway, it’s not a crime to be inside.
This means that private parties’ terms of service limitations on how you can use information, or for what purposes you can access it, are not criminally enforced by the CFAA. For example, if you can look at housing ads as a user, it is not a hacking crime to pull them for your bias-in-housing research project, even if the TOS forbids it. Van Buren is really good news for port scanning, for example: so long as the computer is open to the public, you don’t have to worry about the conditions for use to scan the port.
While the decision was centered around the interpretation of the statute’s text, the Court bolstered its conclusion with the policy concerns raised by the amici, including a brief EFF filed on behalf of computer security researchers and organizations that employ and support them. The Court’s explanation is worth quoting in depth:
If the “exceeds authorized access” clause criminalizes every violation of a computer-use policy, then millions of otherwise law-abiding citizens are criminals. Take the workplace. Employers commonly state that computers and electronic devices can be used only for business purposes. So on the Government’s reading of the statute, an employee who sends a personal e-mail or reads the news using her work computer has violated the CFAA. Or consider the Internet. Many websites, services, and databases …. authorize a user’s access only upon his agreement to follow specified terms of service. If the “exceeds authorized access” clause encompasses violations of circumstance-based access restrictions on employers’ computers, it is difficult to see why it would not also encompass violations of such restrictions on website providers’ computers. And indeed, numerous amici explain why the Government’s reading [would] criminalize everything from embellishing an online-dating profile to using a pseudonym on Facebook.
This analysis shows the Court recognized the tremendous danger of an overly broad CFAA, and explicitly rejected the Government’s arguments for retaining wide powers, tempered only by their prosecutorial discretion.
Left Unresolved: Whether CFAA Violations Require Technical Access Limitations
The Court’s decision was limited in one important respect. In a footnote, the Court left as an open question if the enforceable access restriction meant only “technological (or ‘code-based’) limitations on access, or instead also looks to limits contained in contracts or policies,” meaning that the opinion neither adopted nor rejected either path. EFF has argued in courts and legislative reform efforts for many years that it’s not a computer hacking crime without hacking through a technological defense.
This footnote is a bit odd, as the bulk of the majority opinion seems to point toward the law requiring someone to defeat technological limitations on access, and throwing shade at criminalizing TOS violations. In most cases, the scope of your access once on a computer is defined by technology, such as an access control list or a requirement to reenter a password. Professor Orin Kerr suggested that this may have been a necessary limitation to build the six justice majority.
Later in the Van Buren opinion, the Court rejected a Government argument that a rule against “using a confidential database for a non-law-enforcement purpose” should be treated as a criminally enforceable access restriction, different from “using information from the database for a non-law-enforcement purpose” (emphasis original). This makes sense under the “gates-up-or-down” approach adopted by the Court. Together with the policy issues the Court acknowledged regarding enforcing terms of service quoted above, this helps us understand the limitation footnote, suggesting cleverly writing a TOS will not easily turn a conditional rule on why you can access, or what you can do with information later, into a criminally enforceable access restriction.
Nevertheless, leaving the question open means that we will have to litigate whether and under what circumstance a contract or written policy can amount to an access restriction in the years to come. For example, in Facebook v. Power Ventures, the Ninth Circuit found that a cease and desist letter removing authorization was sufficient to create a CFAA violation for later access, even though a violation of the Facebook terms alone was not. Service providers will likely argue that this is the sort of non-technical access restriction that was left unresolved by Van Buren.
Court’s Narrow CFAA Interpretation Should Help Security Researchers
Even though the majority opinion left this important CFAA question unresolved, the decision still offers plenty of language that will be helpful for later cases on the scope of the statute. That’s because the Van Buren majority’s focus on the CFAA’s technical definitions, and the types of computer access that the law restricts, should provide guidance to lower courts that narrow the law’s reach.
This is a win because broad CFAA interpretations have in the past often deterred or chilled important security research and investigative journalism. The CFAA put these activities in legal jeopardy, in part, because courts often struggle with using non-digital legal concepts and physical analogies to interpret the statute. Indeed, one of the principle disagreements between the Van Buren majority and dissent is whether the CFAA should be interpreted based on physical property law doctrines, such as trespass and theft.
The majority opinion ruled that, in principle, computer access is different from the physical world precisely because the CFAA contains so many technical terms and definitions. “When interpreting statutes, courts take note of terms that carry ‘technical meaning[s],’” the majority wrote.
The rule is particularly true for the CFAA because it focuses on malicious computer use and intrusions, the majority wrote. For example, the term “access” in the context of computer use has its own specific, well established meaning: “In the computing context, ‘access’ references the act of entering a computer ‘system itself’ or a particular ‘part of a computer system,’ such as files, folders, or databases.” Based on that definition, the CFAA’s “exceeding authorized access” restriction should be limited to prohibiting “the act of entering a part of the system to which a computer user lacks access privileges.”
The majority also recognized that the portions of the CFAA that define damage and loss are premised on harm to computer files and data, rather than general non-digital harm such as trespassing on another person’s property: “The statutory definitions of ‘damage’ and ‘loss’ thus focus on technological harms—such as the corruption of files—of the type unauthorized users cause to computer systems and data,” the Court wrote. This is important because loss and damage are prerequisites to civil CFAA claims, and the ability of private entities to enforce the CFAA has been a threat that deters security research when companies might rather their vulnerabilities remain unknown to the public.
Because the CFAA’s definitions of loss and damages focus on harm to computer files, systems, or data, the majority wrote that they “are ill fitted, however, to remediating ‘misuse’ of sensitive information that employees may permissibly access using their computers.”
The Supreme Court’s Van Buren decision rightly limits the CFAA’s prohibition on “exceeding authorized access” to prohibiting someone from accessing particular computer files, services, or other parts of the computer that are otherwise off-limits to them. And the Court’s overturning the Eleventh Circuit decision that permitted CFAA liability based on someone violating a website’s terms of service or an employers’ computer use restrictions ensures that lots of important, legitimate computer use is not a crime.
But there is still more work to be done to ensure that computer crime laws are not misused against researchers, journalists, activists, and everyday internet users. As longtime advocates against overbroad interpretations of the CFAA, EFF will continue to lead efforts to push courts and lawmakers to further narrow the CFAA and similar state computer crime laws so they can no longer be misused.