Because computer viruses can affect commerce, private medical and financial information and even national security, California legislators and the federal government treat these threats very seriously. A person who creates a virus may face severe penalties from the state. He or she could also become the focus of a federal investigation that could result in federal charges.

In California, state law has set penalties for introducing a contaminant into a computer, system or network, even if it does not cause damage. The offense is a misdemeanor that comes with either a fine of up to $5,000, up to one year in county jail, or both the fine and the jail term. A second offense that causes no damage or a first offense that does could lead to penalties of as much as $10,000 and/or a year in jail.

The statutes include viruses in the description of illegal computer contaminants. The set of instructions that make up the virus may affect a computer, a system or a network by:

  • Contaminating programs
  • Consuming resources
  • Changing or destroying data
  • Recording or transmitting data
  • Taking over normal operations in any other way

Viruses can replicate or otherwise spread themselves once they have been put in place. 

The federal government also takes viruses seriously. In fact, the FBI urges anyone who has been the victim of a virus or another party who knows of a virus attack to report it directly to the Internet Crime Complaint Center. That department will then launch an investigation against the alleged attacker.