In a landmark decision, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), 18 U.S.C. § 1030 et seq., does not prohibit improper use of computer information to which an individual has authorized access. Rather, the law prohibits obtaining information from areas of a computer, such as files, folders, or databases, that are outside the limits of the individual’s authorized access. Van Buren v. United States, No. 19-783 (June 3, 2021).

Before the Court took up the case, a sharp split existed among circuit courts, with serious ramifications for employers. The First, Fifth, Seventh, and Eleventh Circuits had adopted a broad construction of the CFAA, allowing claims to go forward when an individual misused information they were otherwise permitted to access. The Second, Fourth, and Ninth Circuits took a narrower approach, concluding that CFAA claims were limited to situations in which an individual accessed information off-limits to them, and mere misuse of information to which they had authorized access could not constitute a violation.  The Supreme Court resolved this split in favor of the narrower reading.

Employers should assess whether they have sufficient safeguards in place to protect against the conduct in Van Buren. While improper use of information through authorized access may no longer violate the CFAA, it can still wreak havoc on a business. Jackson Lewis’s Privacy, Data and Cybersecurity practice group, in conjunction with the Non-Competes and Protection Against Unfair Competition practice group, published an article on the Jackson Lewis website, explaining the Van Buren case in depth and its potential impact.