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A protected computer is a computer vital to the interests of the United States government. Lawmakers have established special legal provisions for such computers, resulting in harsher penalties for unauthorized access or data destruction when a protected computer is involved. The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, revised several times since its introduction in 1986, discusses computers in this class. Several other laws addressing fraud and security concerns also discuss protected computers.
Computers used for important government business, including the storage and transmission of secure information, are protected computers. Likewise with computers involved in interstate or foreign commerce, including those operated by financial institutions. Computers overseas can be protected under the law if they meet the qualifications, allowing the United States government to pursue harsh penalties when overseas hacking compromises security or damages data.
Simply gaining unauthorized access to a protected computer, even without doing anything, is a crime under the law. If a hacker removes or damages data, the penalties are more severe, varying based on the amount of data involved and the level of security. A person who knowingly introduces malware to a protected computer can also be severely punished under the law, especially if the malicious software damages the integrity of the data. Some of these crimes may be considered felonies when the value of the data is high.
If a computer qualifies as a special computer, it may be held in a secure facility where physical access is limited with the goal of protecting the information it contains. Access codes and layers of security can also restrict access within the computer itself. A protected computer can also be set up with limited network connections. If there is no need to connect to the Internet, it can be left on a local network only. Internet connections are secured to limit the possibility of intrusion and unauthorized access, as well as to control the release of information over the Internet.
Cybercrime is a topic of concern to many governments, and in addition to the United States, a number of nations have laws specifically covering computers used for government business. Compromises to these computers could pose a national security threat or interfere with economic activity. Information technology personnel use a number of measures to secure government computers and make them difficult for hackers to attack. The added penalties for hacks of government computers are intended to create an extra layer of security by acting as a deterrent.