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Can I Be Charged With a Crime for Sabotaging My Employer’s Computer?

Just about every workplace in Texas requires computer systems to function. If you are responsible for managing and maintaining such systems, it is important to understand your potential criminal liability. Computer crimes that involve causing damage to your employer’s computer system will not just get you fired or sued for civil damages. It can also land you in federal prison.

IT Administrator Convicted After Causing $130,000 in Damage to Former Company’s Systems

The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) is a federal law that makes it a crime to “knowingly” take any action involving “the transmission of a program, information, code, or command” that causes “damage without authorization” to a computer system. One prominent professor explained in a law review article that this section would cover a scenario where an employee “who is angry at his employer…decides to take revenge by deleting some of his employer’s important files” and intentionally launching attacks against the company’s servers. By deleting files–i.e., destroying company property–that would trigger criminal liability under the CFAA.

As it turns out, a federal appeals court here in Texas recently upheld a criminal conviction that offered a scenario nearly identical to the one proposed by the professor’s article. The defendant in this case worked in the information technology department of a web services company. He was apparently upset that a co-worker had been fired. So the defendant decided to quit himself–but not before going on what the appeals court described as a “weekend campaign of electronic sabotage.”

This “campaign” included deleting hundreds of files from the company’s server, disabling automatic backups of computer systems, and diverting the executives’ emails to his own account. The defendant also “set a time bomb” that would deny the company’s employees access to the system after he quit.

Altogether, the company said the defendant’s actions cost $130,000 to fix. Prosecutors charged the defendant with violating CFAA. The jury found him guilty.

On appeal to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, the defendant maintained he did not technically break the law since he did not access the company’s computers “without authorization.” Indeed, since he worked in the IT department, his job “required him to ‘damage’ the system” at times, and therefore his actions “did not lack authorization.”

The Fifth Circuit said this argument was too clever by a half. According to the evidence presented at trial, the defendant was not engaged in routine maintenance or repairs, which was the work he was “authorized” to perform. And as the Court explained, “Nothing in the statutory text [of the CFAA] says it does not apply to intentional acts of damage that lacked permission if the employee was allowed to engage at other times in other acts that impaired the system.” For that reason, the Fifth Circuit affirmed the defendant’s felony conviction.

Are You Facing a Computer Crimes Charge in Texas?

In recent years prosecutors in Texas have increasingly focused on computer-based white collar crimes. Do not assume that just because there is no physical violence involved that a computer crime will be treated leniently. If you are accused of damaging or sabotaging a computer system and need assistance from a qualified Houston white collar crimes defense attorney, contact the Law Offices of Tad Nelson & Associates today.