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Serious penalties often await computer hackers

In today’s high-tech world, there are many opportunities for people to engage in technological crime, from cyberstalking to phishing to identity theft. Computer hacking is also widely known as a crime. Some North Dakota residents, however, may not realize that a number of seemingly innocent computer activities may qualify as hacking, and therefore come with serious penalties.

In 1970, reported NBC News, a teenage Bill Gates uploaded a virus to a nationwide computer network that he hacked. A few years after that, a young Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak sold technology to college students that let them bypass phone restrictions and call long-distance numbers free of charge. These young men, of course, later went on to create two of the most powerful computer companies in the world. Yet their early hacking activities held no consequences.

This is because the 1986 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act was not yet in effect. Today, this law makes hacking a federal crime. Some types of hacking can result in serious and costly data breaches. On the other hand, someone who is just using a friend’s account to watch movies on their smartphone may also face federal charges. Many believe this law results in excessive punishment. More recently, Aaron Swartz faced 50 years in prison for fraud after downloading academic journal articles in the public domain from an archive he had a paid subscription with – since he had broken into a university network to do so. Mr. Swartz later took his own life.

This information may be of interest to hackers who consider themselves Internet vigilantes. The recent hacking of the online marital infidelity website Ashley Madison may be an example. According to Reuters, a hacking group broke into the site and accessed millions of customers’ email addresses, and then published the information online. They defended their actions as a protest against a website that promotes cheating against one’s spouse, but if caught, they may face severe punishment.

Whether one hacks websites for a cause or innocently downloads information without realizing it’s illegal, the consequences of internet crime are often severe. Many advocates are pushing for changes to a law that they say is antiquated and results in punishments out of proportion to the crime.

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