The legal consequences for distributing a computer virus

On Behalf of | Oct 5, 2022 | Internet Crimes

You might think that experimenting with malicious computer software sounds like an interesting and educational hobby. You might even seek the thrill of being an “infamous” programmer. But if you get into creating viruses, you could end up facing serious criminal charges in federal court. If convicted, you could be sentenced to years in prison.

Technically, the law does not prohibit creating a virus. But the “transmission” of a virus that “causes damage without authorization to a protected computer” is a crime under the 1994 Federal Computer Abuse Act. The law specifically states that this transmission, as well as the resulting damage, must be intentional. A conviction can result in a ten-year prison sentence and a substantial fine.  A less-severe version of this crime provides that doing so with “reckless disregard” for the damaged computer can still lead to a year in jail. You could also be charged with a state offense under California law.

Four excuses that will not work

There is virtually no explanation you could give the authorities to convince them that you should not be prosecuted. Common excuses include:

  • I was curious about how viruses work. (Learn to program instead.)
  • I wanted to test my antivirus scanner. (There are better ways to do that.)
  • I wanted to get a job with a network security or antivirus company. (No reputable company will hire someone who created a malicious virus to get their attention.)
  • I wanted to be famous. (The most attention you are likely to get is a brief news report or two about your arrest. However, your criminal record will stay with you long after you have served your sentence, damaging your reputation and making it very difficult to find a job.)

Your first move if you are arrested for disseminating a virus, or find out that you are under investigation, should be to contact a criminal defense attorney.  Your lawyer should have experience in federal court. You have rights, but without experienced legal counsel, protecting those rights against federal authorities can be difficult.

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