Legal Dictionary

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Computer Crime

A computer crime is an offense directed at computer equipment or a computer network, e.g., spreading a virus or hacking into a system to steal confidential information. In California, computer crime law is primarily contained in Penal Code section 502, the Comprehensive Computer Data Access and Fraud Act.

The statute sets out “to deter and punish browsers and hackers - outsiders who break into a computer system to obtain or alter the information contained therein.” California Penal Code section 502(c) lists nine different bases for criminal and civil liability related to computer crimes (the act intentional and without permission):

  1. Altering, damaging, deleting, destroying or otherwise using any data, computer, computer system, or computer network to devise or execute a fraudulent scheme or to wrongfully control or obtain money, property, or data
  2. Taking, copying or using data from a computer, computer system, or computer network
  3. Using or facilitating the use of computer services
  4. Adding, altering, damaging, deleting or destroying data, computer software, or computer programs in a computer, computer system, or computer network
  5. Disrupting or denying authorized computer services
  6. Providing a means of accessing a computer, computer system, or computer network
  7. Accessing any computer, computer system, or computer network
  8. Introducing any computer contaminant into any computer, computer system, or computer network
  9. Using the Internet domain name of another in connection with the sending of one or more electronic mail messages that damages a computer, computer system, or computer network.

Depending on its seriousness, a computer crime can be charged as either a felony or misdemeanor. Misdemeanor computer crimes can result in fines up to $5,000 and up to one year of imprisonment in the county jail. Felony computer crimes can result in fines up to $10,000 and a lengthy sentence in state prison. In addition to criminal action, the defendant can be sued in civil court for monetary losses. Computer crime is one aspect of cybercrime, which includes internet pornography, internet fraud, cyber-stalking and identity theft.