What Was the Purpose of the Computer Misuse Act?

Elle Jay

Officials in the United Kingdom enacted the Computer Misuse Act to discourage computer hacking and related cybercrime. The 1990 law helps authorities catch and successfully prosecute computer criminals. Computer crime was hard to prosecute before the Computer Misuse Act, when offenders might have gone free because the act of hacking was not officially declared illegal.

The Computer Misuse Act of 1990 outlaws attempts to obtain someone else's password.
The Computer Misuse Act of 1990 outlaws attempts to obtain someone else's password.

Parliament created the Computer Misuse Act in response to the successful appeal of the R v. Gold case, which occurred from 1984 to 1985. In this case, Stephen Gold and Robert Schifreen hacked into the British Telecom Prestel computer system and gained access to Prince Philip’s message box. Authorities charged the pair with forgery and fraud, but the House of Lords acquitted them in 1988.

According to the Computer Misuse Act, accessing a computer to commit a crime is illegal.
According to the Computer Misuse Act, accessing a computer to commit a crime is illegal.

Acquittal came about because Gold and Schifreen gained nothing from accessing the system and did not use data they encountered to commit an illegal act. The Computer Misuse Act made it a crime to access computer material without authorization, also known as hacking. Other illegal actions include changing material on a computer without permission and hacking with the intent to commit some other crime.

Unauthorized computer access, or hacking, happens when a person uses someone else’s password or identification to get into a computer system without consent. The hacker does not need to commit a crime or gain anything from hacking. The act of accessing the system without permission became a crime after the creation of this computer security law.

Hacking generally refers to accessing a computer system, but this law extends to all data and programs. Changing, copying, moving, and removing a computer program are all crimes under the Computer Misuse Act. Obtaining data from a computer system via hacking is also illegal, even if the information is not released or used in any way.

Accessing a computer system to commit or aid in committing a crime is also unlawful, according to the act. This is where sending viruses, worms, and other offensive or troublesome material comes into play. The law forbids sending inappropriate materials from another person’s computer. It also makes it illegal for a person to share login information in order to help someone else send a virus or other malicious item.

This law only applies to unauthorized acts, so it is perfectly legal to access a computer when someone gives permission to use his password. Hacking is the least serious cybercrime included in the Computer Misuse Act, and a fine is the typical punishment. Unauthorized modification and accessing a computer with the intent to commit a crime are both serious offenses, and the law was created with these actions in mind.

Although created with the intent to prevent Internet fraud and punish cybercriminals, critics say the Computer Misuse Act misses the mark. The biggest complaint is that the act does not distinguish between hacking for fun and hacking as a crime. Another problem lies in how difficult it is to prove malicious intent when it comes to unauthorized computer access and modification.

You might also Like

Discussion Comments


@Melonlity -- I have a major problem with international laws. I live in the United States and only this nation has jurisdiction over me. I don't want some lawmaker in Australia to determine whether something I do is legal or not.

It is easy to say that international law is great when dealing with something everyone agrees on such as computer hacking. But that would set a nasty precedent through which we would be subject to other international laws. What if there is an international law against smoking, driving over 40 miles per hour, building cars that get terrible gas mileage, etc.?

What works in one nation doesn't necessarily work in the United States or other nations. People who advocate international law seem to forget that. Those national differences are reason enough for us to not violate the sovereignty of countries.


@Terrificli -- In your hypothetical, I would think that British and U.S. authorities could work together and expedite you to to own up to your crimes in the United Kingdom. It is not unusual at all for governments to deal with international crimes that way.

Also, some international law against computer hacking might go a long way toward solving international crimes.


Another problem with this law (and others like it) is that it is hard to enforce across national borders. Let's say I live in the United States and hack into a computer in Great Britain. Can the British authorities do anything about my illegal activity but complain?

I doubt it.

That being the case, what can be done to make these laws more effective against international hacking crimes?

Post your comments
Forgot password?