Georgia Senate OKs Bill to Make Computer Snooping a Crime

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By Chris Marr

Accessing a computer or network in Georgia without authorization—even if no theft or damage occurs—would be a crime under legislation passed Feb. 12 by the state’s Senate.

If it becomes law, the bill would bring Georgia into the mainstream for allowing criminal prosecution for computer trespassing by itself. But some cybersecurity researchers are opposed, saying the measure could put them at risk for charges stemming from white-hat hacking—the computer break-ins undertaken by security experts in order to test a system’s vulnerabilities.

The bill ( S.B. 315), sponspored by Sen. Bruce Thompson (R), passed the Georgia Senate 41-11. It now goes to the state House, where Republicans also hold a majority. Thompson told senators during floor debate that the bill has the support of House leadership and major technology companies. Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr (R) also voiced his support, contending that the legislation will help the state fight cybercrime.

The Georgia bill would make unauthorized computer access a misdemeanor subject to up to one year in prison and a $5,000 fine. Similar laws are on the books in nearly every state and seen as cybersecurity tools, although some Democratic senators raised concerns about unintended consequences such as internet users being prosecuted for violating a website’s terms of service.

“As it stands, we are one of only three states in the nation where it is not illegal to access a computer so long as nothing is disrupted or stolen,” Carr said in a written statement when the bill was introduced. “Unlawfully accessing any computer in Georgia should be a crime, and we must fix this loophole.”

Georgia’s current Computer Systems Protection Act, which S.B. 315 would revise, makes it a crime to access a computer without authorization with the intention of stealing information or causing damage to the computer, such as by installing a virus or malware. Existing statutes in Alaska and Virginia are similar—making unauthorized access a crime only if theft or damage occurs or is attempted.

Effects on Research

The bill would give prosecutors broad discretion to possibly charge internet users with a crime for violating the terms of service on a website or app such as Facebook Inc. or Twitter Inc., Rep. Jennifer Jordan (D) said on the Senate floor. Her proposed amendment, which failed by a vote of 20-33, would have defined unauthorized computer access as bypassing a password or other technical barrier with malicious intent.

“This is a problem that is seen throughout the country with federal statutes and other state statutes,” as courts struggle to figure out which behaviors violate the law and which ones don’t, she said.

Her comments echoed the concerns of advocacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation, which has argued for revisions to the comparable federal law, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

The proposed Georgia legislation, like the federal law, “chills legitimate security research,” Jamie Williams, staff attorney at the EFF, told Bloomberg Law, calling it “the opposite of increasing security.”

Researchers and ethical hackers may also not be willing to conduct security training in Georgia if the bill is enacted.

The bill’s intent probably wasn’t to limit ethical hacking, “but there are nuances that have radical implications if not covered properly” in the bill, Marten Mickos, CEO of bug bounty platform HackerOne, told Bloomberg Law.

Even if law enforcement agencies don’t go after ethical hackers or security researchers, it “may be enough to stop ethical hackers from doing good work because they are afraid of the repercussions,” he said.

With assistance from Daniel R. Stoller in Washington

To contact the reporter on this story: Chris Marr in Atlanta at cmarr@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Donald Aplin at daplin@bloomberglaw.com

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