Facebook Use On Company Computers: Not A Federal Crime

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Go into any office anywhere and you are guaranteed to find people who, at one time or another, have used the company's computers to send a personal email or take a few minutes to check out what's happening on Twitter. It's just what people do and, done with moderation, it's a harmless spacer between tasks (just don't do it while working on a task). Most companies have terms of use that dictates whether an employee can use the work computer for personal use and, with that rule, guidelines of how an employee violating the policy will be disciplined.

This really isn't news to you, I know. However, how would you feel if those idle check-ins on Facebook or Gmail were construed as federal crimes? That was nearly the case those in a recent case, U.S. v. Nosal, in which the government alleged that by violating the terms of use for a company's computers, that David Nosal had violated the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, a law that makes the hacking of computers a federal offense. Thankfully, Judge Alex Kozinski of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Court, blocked the government's interpretation of CFAA.

The implications for such a ruling could have long-reaching effects, including the instances in which employees innocently distract themselves by reading the news online while at work. In his opinion, Judge Kozinski wrote of the danger of using CFAA in such a pernicious way, using examples of how the ruling would affect some online services:

For example, it's not widely known that, up until very recently, Google forbade minors from using its services. Adopting the government's interpretation would turn vast numbers of teens and pre-teens into juvenile delinquents - and their parents and teachers in to delinquency contributors. Similarly, Facebook makes it a violation of the terms of service to let anyone log into your account. Yet it's very common for people to let close friends and relatives check their email or access their online accounts. Some may be aware that, if discovered, they may suffer a rebuke from the ISP or a loss of access, but few imagine they might be marched off to federal prison for doing so.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation filed an amicus brief to the court encouraging Judge Kozinski to rule against the government's application of CFAA. Following the ruling, EFF Senior Staff Attorney Marcia Hofmann hailed the ruling as a victory for all Americans. "Violating a private computer use policy shouldn't be crime, just as violating a website's terms of use shouldn't be a crime," she said.

Granted, what Nosal was using the company's computers for wasn't quite as innocent as posting an update to Facebook, and he probably did violate the terms of use for the company but the law needs to applied in a different, less extremist fashion. Using work computers for personal use could probably get you written up or even possibly fired, but it shouldn't land you in a federal penitentiary.

[Via EFF.]