What is 'Computer Abuse'

Computer abuse is the use of a computer to do something improper or illegal. Examples of computer abuse include using a computer to expose personally identifiable information (PII) such as Social Security numbers, using a computer to change the content of a website owned by someone else, intentionally infecting one computer with a worm that will spread to other computers, using a computer to illegally share copyrighted items, and using one computer to gain unauthorized access to another. Other examples of computer abuse include cyberbullying and using a work computer for personal tasks on company time.

People who commit computer abuse may be violating university policies, company policies, and/or federal law. Responding to computer abuse involves identifying the offending computer(s) and then trying to identify the individual abuser(s).

BREAKING DOWN 'Computer Abuse'

Some definitions of computer abuse consider computer crime to be a type of computer abuse. Other definitions consider the two to be completely distinct, calling computer abuse something dishonest or unethical and computer crime something illegal. These opinions are irrelevant, however, when it comes to the federal law governing computer abuse: The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1984 (CFAA).

The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1984

The CFAA criminalizes certain types of computer abuse by banning “unauthorized access” of computers and networks. The law has been used to successfully prosecute both high- and low-level hackers for both civil and criminal matters. Early on, for example, the law was used to convict the man who released the first computer worm in 1988. Over the years, however, the law’s vagueness has resulted in punishments as severe as decades in prison for minor abuses that did not cause economic or physical harm.

While the law was intended for the prosecution of hackers committing computer abuse by stealing valuable information and/or causing damage when they break into a computer system, Congress has expanded the CFAA five times so that activities that were once misdemeanors are now federal felonies and everyday users can be punished for minor infractions of an application’s terms of service.

The act makes white lies such as understating your age or weight on a dating site a crime. It also makes violating a company’s policy on using a work computer for personal use a felony. If the law was widely enforced, almost every white collar worker in America would be in prison for computer abuse. Because it is arbitrarily and sometimes overly enforced, federal judges and scholars have advocated for changing the law to decriminalize terms of service violations. One impediment to loosening the law has been resistance by corporations who benefit from it. One of the changes to the CFAA in 1994 amended the law to allow for civil actions, giving corporations a way to sue employees who steal company secrets.

Examples of Computer Abuse

An incident that many people might not think of as computer abuse is creating a fake social media account. If the social media service’s terms and conditions require users to provide accurate information about their identities when creating an account, they could be prosecuted under the CFAA. This outcome is unlikely unless an individual uses a fake account for malicious purposes, such as cyberbullying, but it is a possibility—and that possibility of being prosecuted for something as minor as the mere creation of a fake account is a major problem with the CFAA. Attorneys have been able to exploit the law’s weaknesses to defend clients who should perhaps have been punished and prosecutors have been able to exploit the law to obtain convictions for minor incidents.

The most well-known example of the unintended consequences of expanding the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act was the threat of a 35-year prison sentence for internet activist Aaron Swartz for allegedly downloading millions of academic articles to which access was restricted through a subscription service, probably with the intent to freely distribute them. Arguably, Swartz’s alleged actions would be constituted as theft, but did the proposed punishment fit the alleged crime? Swartz did not seem to think so – he took his own life before the case could go to trial.

  1. Aaron's Law

    Aaron’s Law is a bill introduced in Congress in 2013 to reform ...
  2. Computer Crime Insurance

    An insurance policy that provides protection from crimes committed ...
  3. Cloud Computing

    Cloud computing is a model for delivering information technology ...
  4. Debt Restructuring Fraud

    An illegal technique where an individual or corporation hides ...
  5. Business Crime Insurance

    Business crime insurance gives companies protection from damage ...
  6. Moore's Law

    Moore's Law is the observation made by Intel co-founder Gordon ...
Related Articles
  1. Insights

    Elder Financial Abuse: How to Protect Yourself

    There are behaviors and laws that will help you avoid becoming a victim of financial abuse.
  2. Personal Finance

    Financial Crimes Against the Elderly Are on the Rise

    Financial elder abuse is a growing problem in the U.S. as more people move into old age.
  3. Retirement

    Elder Abuse: What You Need to Know and Look for

    Look for these signs of elder abuse to help protect your loved ones.
  4. Insights

    Steve Jobs Biography (AAPL)

    Steve Jobs was an American businessman, an early proponent of personal computers and a cultural icon.
  5. Tech

    IBM Unveils Tiny Computer Based on Blockchain

    The new computer from IBM is smaller than a grain of salt.
  6. Insights

    Do You Still Need A Desktop Computer?

    Is there really a need for a desktop computer today when there are so many options for laptops and mobile devices?
  7. Insights

    How Advisors Can Help Protect Vulnerable Clients

    With longevity increasing, advisors will need to consider how to best serve aged clients.
  8. Investing

    The World's Top 10 Hardware Companies (AAPL,IBM)

    Learn more about the companies leading the way in the hardware industry and how some are riding the coattails of giants such as Apple.
  9. Investing

    Computer Sciences Corp. Is Graduating to the S&P 500

    The ever-shifting lineup of stocks on the S&P 500 will soon undergo another change. S&P Global (NYSE: SPGI), which manages that index and many others, announced that the company currently known ...
  1. Why would someone change their Social Security number?

    Learn the reasons a person might choose to change his Social Security number, including identity theft and abuse, and discover ... Read Answer >>
  2. What impact does Moore's Law have on the electronic sector?

    Understand the groundbreaking implications of Moore's Law on the economic health of several industries, including semiconductors ... Read Answer >>
  3. How is the value of the S&P 500 calculated?

    The S&P 500 is a U.S. market index that gives investors an idea of the overall movement in the U.S. equity market. The value ... Read Answer >>
  4. What is the difference between absolute and comparative advantage?

    Learn about the difference between absolute and comparative advantage and how these two key economic concepts help shape ... Read Answer >>
Hot Definitions
  1. Portfolio

    A portfolio is a grouping of financial assets such as stocks, bonds and cash equivalents, also their mutual, exchange-traded ...
  2. Gross Profit

    Gross profit is the profit a company makes after deducting the costs of making and selling its products, or the costs of ...
  3. Diversification

    Diversification is the strategy of investing in a variety of securities in order to lower the risk involved with putting ...
  4. Intrinsic Value

    Intrinsic value is the perceived or calculated value of a company, including tangible and intangible factors, and may differ ...
  5. Current Assets

    Current assets is a balance sheet item that represents the value of all assets that can reasonably expected to be converted ...
  6. Volatility

    Volatility measures how much the price of a security, derivative, or index fluctuates.
Trading Center