(FiveNation.com)- The Supreme Court made a very surprising decision Thursday, saying a policeman who accessed a license plate database improperly couldn’t be charged with a crime.
The high court ruled 6-3 that Georgia police officer Nathan Van Buren didn’t violate America’s top computer crime law after searching a database for license plates for purposes other than official police business.
Van Buren accepted money from a third party to search the database. That third party ended up being an informant for the FBI.
As a result, the U.S. government charged Van Buren with violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. But, the Supreme Court ruled he couldn’t be charged because of it.
The majority opinion was written by Justice Amy Coney Barrett. She wrote the officer’s conduct “plainly flouted” the policy of his department, which only allowed him to obtain information from that database for police purposes.
At the same time, she said the Supreme Court was only asked whether Van Buren violated the CFAA, and “he did not.” The provision of that particular law that was at issue before the high court didn’t cover those “who have improper motives for obtaining information that is otherwise available to them.”
“To top it all off,” interpreting the law as expansively as the government wanted to in this case “would attach criminal penalties to a breathtaking amount of commonplace computer activity.”
Some of the things that Barrett wrote would now be considered a crime were reading news or checking your personal email on a work computer.
The court ruling clarified a debate that has gone on for a while. The issue at hand was whether the CFAA applies to any misconduct that doesn’t include someone breaking into a computer.
Digital rights groups have said that the law has been used too broadly in the past. The CFAA has been used in cases that involved violating terms of service or defacing websites.
Now, there is a precedent set that would make it harder for the CFAA to be applied in any case where the individual is actually authorized to access the information on a database, even if they are doing it for “improper” reasons.
Steve Vladeck, who is an analyst on the Supreme Court for CNN, commented:
“Today’s decision is going to make it incumbent upon businesses and governments to be far more specific in their policies governing access to databases — not just about who is allowed to access particular databases, but about the specific purposes for which those individuals are and are not allowed to access that database.
“In the process, the court has made it a lot harder to punish those who misuse databases to which they generally have lawful access — and a lot more important for database owners to expressly prohibit uses of the data that aren’t specifically permitted.”
The justices didn’t rule along party lines. In the majority alongside Barrett were conservatives justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh and all three liberal justices — Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor.
The dissenting justices were all conservatives — Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and Chief Justice John Roberts.