The federal appeals court in San Francisco has reinstated an indictment charging a former employee of Korn/Ferry International, Inc., with violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, 18 U.S.C. § 1030 (the “CFAA”) in trying to start a business that would compete with his former employer. .

The indictment in United States v. Nosal, which a lower court dismissed, alleged that the employee, David Nosal, “knowingly and with intent to defraud” exceeded his authorized access to his employer’s computer system for the purpose of setting up a competing business. Nosal was an executive at Korn/Ferry and subject to a non-competition agreement. After leaving the company, he started a competing business, soliciting the help of three Korn/Ferry employees to provide him with source lists, names, and contact information from a Korn/Ferry proprietary and confidential database. Employee access to the database was specifically restricted, except for legitimate Korn/Ferry business.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated the indictment on April 28 against Nosal on the basis of its interpretation that “an employee exceeds authorization under [the CFAA] when the employee uses that authorized access to obtain or alter information in the computer that the accesser is not entitled in that manner to obtain or alter.” The Court reaffirmed that employers determine what access or authorization an employee has to an employer’s computer, and pointed to specific examples of steps the employer in this case took to limit access to and authorized uses of information. These examples include the use of unique usernames and passwords, requiring employees to enter into agreements that explained the limitations on the use of certain company information, and causing a notice concerning data security and confidentiality to pop-up on each employee’s computer screen whenever the employee logged on to the company’s system.

Joining the Fifth and Eleventh Circuits, the Court ruled that as long as an employee has knowledge of an employer’s limitations on authorized use of a computer system, the employee will exceed authorized access under the CFAA whenever he or she violates those limitations or goes beyond his or her authorized access with an “intent to defraud” by an action that “furthers the intended fraud and obtains anything of value. It is as simple as that.”
The message to employers from this case is that if you want to be able to effectively use the CFAA as a means of recovery when employees steal data or take other actions to harm company computers or data, you will need to plan ahead. That is, employers will need to clearly define access rights and limitations to their information and information systems, and effectively communicate those rights and limitations to employees.