Fourth Circuit Joins Ninth in Limiting CFAA – Setting Stage for More Action

In 1986, Congress amended its earlier attempt to combat computer crime with the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986. It was further expanded in 2001 under the USA Patriot Act. The CFAA serves as both a criminal and civil statute.  It has both strong criminal penalties for unauthorized entry into computer systems and provides an express private cause of action – enabling injured parties to sue intruders using the federal law as the basis for their claims.

The most controversial aspect of the CFAA has been the meaning of unauthorized access. Among the violations, Congress has made it a crime to “intentionally accesses a computer without authorization or exceeds authorized access….” The statute provides some additional guidance. The addition of exceed has its own definition. It means “to access a computer with authorization and to use such access to obtain or alter information in the computer that the accesser is not entitled so to obtain or alter.” § 1030(e)(6). So it seems fairly clear that using one’s password to acquire documents for which one has no right to read is a violation of the statute.

But data theft is more nuanced than just this. What about downloading documents when the person downloading has authority to use the material, but then uses that material in an unauthorized manner. Put another way – if an employee is fired and then takes the files she has had at home and brings them to her next employer, it is unlikely an CFAA claim can be made. Conversely, if she returns to work the day after being fired and downloads all the company documents, she has certainly violated the CFAA since her termination ending her authorized access to the computer. But what about the situation when one downloads the documents intending trade secret theft prior to being fired or quitting the company?

In a recent Fourth Circuit opinion, WEC Carolina Energy Solutions LLC v. Miller, 2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 15441 (4th Cir. July 26, 2012) faced this situation.

The court explained the split of authority interpreting the statute:

In short, two schools of thought exist. The first, promulgated by the Seventh Circuit … holds that when an employee accesses a computer or information on a computer to further interests that are adverse to his employer, he violates his duty of loyalty, thereby terminating his agency relationship and losing any authority he has to access the computer or any information on it. Thus, for example, the Seventh Circuit held [in Int’l Airport Ctrs., LLC v. Citrin, 440 F.3d 418, 420-21 (7th Cir. 2006)] that an employee who erased crucial data on his company laptop prior to turning it in at the end of his employment violated the CFAA. It reasoned that his “breach of his duty of loyalty terminated his agency relationship . . . and with it his authority to access the laptop, because the only basis of his authority had been that relationship.”

The second, articulated by the Ninth Circuit … interprets “without authorization” and “exceeds authorized access” literally and narrowly, limiting the terms’ application to situations where an individual accesses a computer or information on a computer without permission. Thus, in [United States v. Nosal, 676 F.3d 854, 863 (9th Cir. 2012) (en banc)] the Ninth Circuit, sitting en banc, held that the defendant’s coconspirators, a group of employees at an executive search firm, did not violate the CFAA when they retrieved confidential information via their company user accounts and transferred it to the defendant, a competitor and former employee. It reasoned that the CFAA fails to provide a remedy for misappropriation of trade secrets or violation of a use policy where authorization has not been rescinded.

The Fourth Circuit opinion attempts to make sense of the language with a simple, plain language approach. “Congress has not clearly criminalized obtaining or altering information ‘in a manner’ that is not authorized,” the court explained. “Rather, it has simply criminalized obtaining or altering information that an individual lacked authorization to obtain or alter.”

This separates the Fourth Circuit from the Seventh Circuit and even distinguishes it somewhat from other courts. Employees who hack into their employers’ computer systems to steal data or who use the username and password of other employees to gain greater access to computer systems will remain liable under the CFAA. But those who take electronic files home to work on them at night without express permission were beyond the scope of the CFAA. Similarly, those disgruntled employees who steal electronic files while on the job may be violating their terms of employment, company policies, and state laws but they are not violating the CFAA in the Fourth Circuit.

Since it is better that the interpretation of a statute does not turn on the language in the employee handbook, this is a better result. Companies can still protect themselves by limiting access to sensitive information. Other laws protect theft of trade secrets and other torts provide remedy for breach of fiduciary duties. On the other hand, the distinction between the circuits need not be as stark. An employee who erases all company data before returning equipment has likely exceeded the authority to alter the data. This result is consistent with the outcome in the WEC and a court can still reach such misconduct under the cleaner interpretation of the Fourth Circuit.

While it remains to be seen whether the Fourth Circuit opinion invites Supreme Court review, it may be sufficiently well reasoned to invite other circuits to reconsider interpretations of the statute that go beyond the language Congress enacted.

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