The Supreme Court issued a decision in a criminal case in June that has implications in trade-secret law. Specifically, the Supreme Court considered the scope of the phrase “access[ing] a computer with authorization and [using] such access to obtain or alter information in the computer that the accesser is not entitled so to obtain or alter,” which is prohibited by the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986. Se Van Buren v. United States, 593 U.S. ___ (June 3, 2021); see also 18 U. S. C. §1030(a)(2). This Act can be used to protect trade secrets that reside on a computer system.
The case concerned a police officer that ran a license-plate search in a law-enforcement computer database in exchange for money for private purposes. The search was prohibited by the department’s policy. The Supreme Court had to determine whether it constituted a criminal act, as well.
The parties did not dispute whether the officer had authorization to access the computer system at issue. Rather, the dispute concerned whether he was “entitled” to access the information at issue.
In framing the issue, both parties examined the statutory language very carefully. However, the Court ultimately determined that the government’s proposed construction of the statutory language could criminalize such activity as employees sending “personal e-mail or read[ing] the news using [their] work computer”. See Van Buren, 593 U.S. slip op. at 18.
As a result, the Court ruled in favor of the police officer and held “an individual ‘exceeds authorized access’ when he 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.” Id. at 20.