The body of laws governing crimes on the Internet are some of the most rapidly changing of all state laws. Controversy surrounding issues such as pornography on the Internet and the World Wide Web, the copying and posting of copyrighted information from an authorized site on the Internet to another site, and privacy of communication and access to materials on the Internet are still being hotly debated and no clear method for dealing with them has yet been devised. In addition, recent efforts to regulate the world of the Internet have taken place largely in the federal level. As of this writing, major federal legislation has just been enacted that covers many activities on the Internet, but the regulations have not yet been written enforcing its various provisions and much of the act is not yet effective. Accordingly, there is still much speculation about what the law means.
On the state level, the one thing upon which there is much unanimity is that theft of information or money in electronic form is much the same as theft in any other form. State laws on computer crime, therefore, focus on theft of information or money through the use of a computer or an on-line computer service.
Virtually every state requires that one have the requisite mental state before they may be convicted of a computer crime. One must willfully, knowingly or purposely access computer-based data and intend to steal, destroy or alter computer-based information, steal services, passwords, or otherwise interfere with hardware or software, etc. It is not enough for purposes of these laws to accidently or unintentionally wander into areas on the internet where valuable or secure information may reside. If one enters such an area using computers or computer technology, his/her intent must be to steal, destroy or defraud to be found guilty of a crime.
Only a handful of states don’t explicitly ban access to certain computer files. In most states mere access can be prosecuted as a crime. In addition, many states have the additional requirement that damage sustained by the victim of the crime be of a certain amount before the crime becomes a felony. For example, in New Jersey, if damage is more than $200, it is a felony. If it is less, it is a misdemeanor. The limit is $1,000 in South Dakota, $10,000 in Connecticut. In very few states, there is either no misdemeanor provision at all, or no money amount distinguishing the one from the other.
As the technology becomes ubiquitous, the law in this controversial area is sure to be subject to tremendous change and development over the next few years. One new development that is only beginning is legislation regarding the use of computers in acts of terrorism. To date, only two states have provisions regarding computer crimes and acts of terrorism. For example, Indiana specifically mentions terrorism, but others imply it in language that makes it a crime to use computers to disrupt government services or public utilities. It is anticipated that in the next few years there will be a growing number of states defining certain computer crimes as terrorism and then enhancing the penalties for committing such crimes. In the meantime, this chapter can be used at least as a guidepost to identify the specific laws in question even if the specific provisions change in the details.