Computer Fraud and Abuse Act

On April 30, 2021 a California district court trimmed various federal privacy-related claims, including the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) claim, from a highly-visible, ongoing putative class action against fintech services company Plaid Inc. (“Plaid”), but allowed other state law privacy claims to go forward.  The lawsuit involves Plaid’s alleged collection and use of consumers’ banking login credentials and later processing and selling of such financial transaction data to third parties without adequate notice or consent (Cottle v. Plaid Inc., No. 20-3056 (N.D. Cal. Apr. 30, 2021).

The court’s decision did not delve deeply in the merits of the CFAA claim, as it was dismissed on procedural grounds; similarly, resolution of the major issues of the case about invasion of privacy and the adequacy of consent to access consumers’ bank accounts and collect/aggregate data was not achieved at this early stage of the litigation.  Thus, this case is just beginning and is certainly one to watch to see how the unsettled areas of mobile privacy and CFAA “unauthorized access” are further developed.

On November 30, 2020, the Supreme Court held oral argument in its first case interpreting the “unauthorized access” provision of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA). The CFAA in part prohibits knowingly accessing a computer “without authorization” or “exceeding authorized access” to a computer and thereby obtaining information and causing a “loss” under the statute. The case concerns an appeal of an Eleventh Circuit decision affirming the conviction of a police officer for violating the CFAA for accessing a police license plate database he was authorized to use but used instead for non-law enforcement purposes. (See U.S. v. Van Buren, 940 F. 3d 1192 (11th Cir. 2019), pet. for cert. granted Van Buren v. U.S., No. 19-783 (Apr. 20, 2020)). The issue presented is: “Whether a person who is authorized to access information on a computer for certain purposes violates Section 1030(a)(2) of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act if he accesses the same information for an improper purpose.”

The defendant Van Buren argued that he is innocent because he accessed only databases that he was authorized to use, even though he did so for an inappropriate reason.  He contended that the CFAA was being interpreted too broadly and that such a precedent could subject individuals to criminal liability merely for violating corporate computer use policies. During oral argument, Van Buren’s counsel suggested that such a wide interpretation of the CFAA was turning the statute into a “sweeping Internet police mandate” and that the Court shouldn’t construe a statute “simply on the assumption the government will use it responsibly.”  In rebuttal, the Government countered that Van Buren’s misuse of access for personal gain was the type of “serious breaches of trust by insiders” that statutory language is designed to cover.

We continue to wait to see if the Supreme Court will accept LinkedIn’s petition to overturn the Ninth Circuit’s blockbuster ruling in the hiQ Labs case.  In that case, the appeals court held that an entity engaging in scraping of “public” data had shown a likelihood of success on its claim that such access does not constitute access “without authorization” under the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA).

In the meantime, earlier this week the Supreme Court agreed to hear the appeal of an Eleventh Circuit decision that affirmed the conviction of a police officer under the CFAA for “exceeding authorized access” for accessing police databases for personal gain. (See U.S. v. Van Buren, 940 F. 3d 1192 (11th Cir. 2019), pet. for cert. granted Van Buren v. U.S., No. 19-783 (Apr. 20, 2020)).  This would be the Supreme Court’s first CFAA case.

And in addition to the news at the Supreme Court, late last month, a D.C. district court issued a ruling interpreting the extent of criminal liability under the CFAA for accessing websites in contravention of terms of use for academic research. In that case, the D.C. court held that the mere violation of website terms of use cannot form the basis of criminal liability for “unauthorized access” or “exceeding authorized access” under the CFAA. (Sandvig v. Barr, No. 16. 1368 (D.D.C. Mar. 27, 2020)).

Last month, LinkedIn Corp. (“LinkedIn”) filed a petition for rehearing en banc of the Ninth Circuit’s blockbuster decision in hiQ Labs, Inc. v. LinkedIn Corp., No. 17-16783 (9th Cir. Sept. 9, 2019). The crucial question before the original panel concerned the scope of Computer Fraud and Abuse Act

On October 11, 2019, LinkedIn Corp. (“LinkedIn”) filed a petition for rehearing en banc of the Ninth Circuit’s blockbuster decision in hiQ Labs, Inc. v. LinkedIn Corp., No. 17-16783 (9th Cir. Sept. 9, 2019). The crucial question before the original panel concerned the scope of Computer Fraud and

In a ruling that is being hailed as a victory for web scrapers and the open nature of publicly available website data, the Ninth Circuit today issued its long-awaited opinion in hiQ Labs, Inc. v. LinkedIn Corp., No. 17-16783 (9th Cir. Sept. 9, 2019). The crucial question before the court was whether once hiQ Labs, Inc. (“hiQ”) received LinkedIn Corp.’s (“LinkedIn”) cease-and-desist letter demanding it stop scraping public LinkedIn profiles, any further scraping of such data was “without authorization” within the meaning of the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA). The appeals court affirmed the lower court’s order granting a preliminary injunction barring the professional networking platform LinkedIn from blocking hiQ, a data analytics company, from accessing and scraping publicly available LinkedIn member profiles to create competing business analytic products. Most notably, the Ninth Circuit held that hiQ had shown a likelihood of success on the merits in its claim that when a computer network generally permits public access to its data, a user’s accessing that publicly available data will not constitute access “without authorization” under the CFAA.

In light of this ruling, data scrapers, content aggregators and advocates of a more open internet will certainly be emboldened, but we reiterate something we advised back in our 2017 Client Alert about the lower court’s hiQ decision: while the Ninth Circuit’s decision suggests that the CFAA is not an available remedy to protect against unwanted scraping of public website data that is “presumptively open to all,” entities engaged in scraping should remain careful. The road ahead, while perhaps less bumpy than before, still contains rough patches. Indeed, the Ninth Circuit cautioned that its opinion was issued only at the preliminary injunction stage and that the court did not “resolve the companies’ legal dispute definitively, nor do we address all the claims and defenses they have pleaded in the district court.”

This month, an Illinois district court considered another in the series of web scraping disputes that have been working their way through our courts.  In this dispute, CouponCabin, Inc. v. PriceTrace, LLC, No. 18-7525 (N.D. Ill. Apr. 11, 2019), CouponCabin alleged that a competitor, PriceTrace, scraped coupon codes from CouponCabin’s website without authorization and displayed them on its own website.

After discovering PriceTrace’s scraping activities, CouponCabin sent PriceTrace a cease and desist letter demanding that PriceTrace stop scraping data from CouponCabin’s website.  CouponCabin alleged that PriceTrace continued to access and scrape data from CouponCabin’s website even after the C&D letter was sent. As a result, CouponCabin brought several causes of action against PriceTrace, including claims under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), tortious interference and breach of contract.

The court found that CouponCabin’s C&D letter had revoked PriceTrace’s access to its site and that PriceTrace’s alleged continued access to the website plausibly stated a violation of the CFAA’s “unauthorized access” provision (18 U.S.C. §1030(a)(2)(C)).  Ultimately, however, the court dismissed the CFAA claims with leave to amend, due to plaintiff’s failure to plead the requisite amount of damage or loss as required to maintain a civil action under the CFAA.

“CouponCabin is simply alleging that PriceTrace was able to circumvent CouponCabin’s website security, with no allegation that such evasion impairs or harm the website. Absent allegation of impairment, CouponCabin has merely alleged that PriceTrace accessed CouponCabin’s website without authorization.”