A six-Justice majority of the Supreme Court of the United States issued an opinion Thursday interpreting the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA). The case, which was appealed from the 11th Circuit, centers around a former Georgia police officer who used a law enforcement database to look up information “in exchange for money.”
The opinion was authored by Justice Amy Coney Barrett, and was joined by Justices Sotomayor, Kagan, Gorsuch, Breyer, and Kavanaugh. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a dissent, and was joined by Justice Alito and Chief Justice Roberts.
According to the opinion, the CFAA, among other things, “makes it illegal ‘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.'” Key to the dispute is whether the law applies to users who are entitled to access the information at issue, but “have improper motives for obtaining information that is otherwise available to them.”
The majority relied primarily on the text of the statute in finding for the officer, its usage of the term “entitled” in defining the proscribed activity, and whether the phrase “so” is a so-called statement of reference to the earlier-described action. The majority also made reference to policy arguments, stating that “the Government’s interpretation of the statute would attach criminal penalties to a breathtaking amount of commonplace computer activity,” such as the violation of any computer-use policy.
“Van Buren accordingly did not ‘excee[d] authorized access’ to the database, as the CFAA defines that phrase, even though he obtained information from the database foran improper purpose,” Justice Barrett concluded.
Justice Thomas disagreed in his dissent, arguing that “an ordinary reader of the English language” would understand “exceeded authorized access” to apply to a user who accessed information from a database “under circumstances that were expressly forbidden.”
The former officer, Nathan Van Buren, was represented by the Stanford Law School Supreme Court Litigation Clinic.