Passed in 1986, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) is a U.S. law that cracks down on unauthorized computer access. It targets individuals who knowingly gain access to protected computers either without permission or by exceeding their authorized use. This legislation stemmed from growing anxieties about computer hacking and was added as an amendment to an existing law (the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984). Over the years, the CFAA has been updated several times, including the introduction of civil penalties.

Debates Surrounding the CFAA: Expanding Scope and Controversial Cases

The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) has been steadily expanding its scope, sparking a significant debate about how broadly it should be interpreted. Critics argue that the law’s current reach is too far-reaching and could potentially lead to criminal charges against employees for simply violating their company’s computer use policies or against individuals for breaching the terms of service on a website. A notable case that brought attention to the expansive nature of the CFAA was the situation involving Lori Drew in 2008. Drew was accused of violating MySpace’s terms of service by creating a fake profile that she used to cyberbully a teenager, tragically leading to the teen’s suicide. While she was initially found guilty under the CFAA for exceeding her authorized use of MySpace, a federal judge later overturned the conviction, deeming it to be beyond the law’s originally intended scope.

The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act

Despite this reversal, concerns persist that the CFAA could still be used to criminalize individuals for violating terms of service agreements. This highlights a key criticism: the CFAA may be outdated for the modern technological landscape, having been written before the widespread adoption of the internet. Efforts have been made to address these concerns. In 2011, Senator Patrick Leahy introduced the Personal Data Privacy and Security Act, a proposed bill that aimed to clarify the boundaries of the CFAA, particularly in cases related to company terms of service and employee-acceptable use policies. Unfortunately, this bill failed to gain traction and did not advance beyond the Senate.

The issue of the CFAA‘s reach returned to the spotlight in January 2013 following the tragic suicide of internet activist Aaron Swartz. Swartz faced federal charges under the CFAA for allegedly accessing and downloading academic articles from JSTOR using the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s network. His death ignited widespread calls for reform of the CFAA, prompting Representative Zoe Lofgren to introduce the Aaron’s Law Act of 2013. Despite these efforts, the proposed reforms stalled in committee, underscoring the ongoing challenges associated with amending the CFAA.


The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) serves as a critical piece of legislation aimed at protecting computers and networks from unauthorized access. While its provisions are designed to maintain digital security, the law has been subject to debates and controversies surrounding its application and interpretation. Cases like that of Lori Drew and Aaron Swartz have highlighted the challenges in balancing the CFAA’s enforcement with concerns over individual rights and technological advancements. Efforts to address these issues through legislative reform, such as the Personal Data Privacy and Security Act and the Aaron’s Law Act, have faced obstacles, indicating the complexities involved in amending the CFAA. Moving forward, ongoing dialogue and collaboration will be essential in ensuring that the CFAA effectively safeguards digital assets while upholding principles of fairness and accountability in the digital age.


The CFAA functions as a deterrent against unauthorized computer access. It achieves this by establishing criminal penalties for individuals who knowingly:

  • Access a protected computer without proper authorization.
  • Exceed the limitations of their authorized access to a protected computer.

The CFAA has sparked significant debate over its breadth and interpretation, particularly regarding its potential to lead to criminal charges against individuals for violating terms of service agreements. Cases like that of Lori Drew and Aaron Swartz have brought attention to these debates.

Yes, there have been legislative efforts to address concerns about the CFAA. For example, Senator Patrick Leahy introduced the Personal Data Privacy and Security Act of 2011 to clarify the law’s boundaries, but the bill failed to advance beyond the Senate. Additionally, Representative Zoe Lofgren introduced the Aaron’s Law Act of 2013 in response to Aaron Swartz’s case, but it also faced obstacles in committee.

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